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The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel & Shtisel
By Elyse Sommer

Here's my take on two more serial dramas that have created a big buzz: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, an Amazon original. . . Shtisel, a 2013 2-season, 12 episode Israeli TV series that turned into a surprise hit with the binge enthusiasts .

But while The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has a stellar American cast, viewers are unlikely to recognize any of the actors portraying the members of Shtisel's ultra-orthodox Haredi family. Yet this series is hardly a case of a TV show that's not doing well looking for a last hurrah with entertainment hungry streamers at Netflix. The show was a big hit during its 2-season run in Israel, winning that country's version of the Emmy awards. However, it didn't become a blockbuster hit until its arrival at Netflix where word of mouth went viral.

Despite the insularity of the people portrayed, Shtisel has proved universally appealing to an amazingly diverse audience. The once famous ad for Levy's rye bread still applies: You don't have to be Jewish to be hooked into the lives of the members of its ultra-religious family.

Watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was a lot like going to see a hot ticket show on Broadway, while Shtisel was more like seeing something new and more low key Off-Broadway. And as is often the case with my theater going, I found Shtisel more interesting and rewarding.

Whether you agree with my comments or not, Mrs. Maisel has already been available for binging on Netflix. Shtisel, like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is filming a third season. What's more, there's also talk that an American Shtisel which will be set in the orthodox community in Brooklyn's Williamsburg section is in the works. Who knows, maybe someone else is brainstorming a musical Shtisel. .

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. . .including a season 3 update
Mrs. Maisel
The last time I saw Rachel Brosnahan she was the ill-fated Desdemona in a sizzly off-Broadway production of Shakespeare's Othello. Decidedly not a comedy. In House of Cards, the political drama that started the custom of posting a whole season's episodes for viewers to binge on. Things here didn't go too well either for her character, a prostitute named Rachel Prosner. While Desdemona certainly figured importantly in Othello and Rachel Posner in House of Cards, the ticket selling star of Othello was Daniel Craig and Rachel Posner was one of many subsidiary characters who had recurring guest spots in the Netflix binger.

So, yes, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is indeed a triumph for Brosnahan now that she's the title character and very much the star of what's proved to be a major hit for Amazon's jump into original content creation. Like Desdemona's marriage, the union of Miriam "Midge" Weissman and Joel Maisel isn't a happily ever after either. However, though Joel does leave Midge and shack up with another woman he doesn't strangle her. In fact, he remains in love with her and actually supports her as she becomes the successful stand-up comic he hoped to be— but wasn't.

As indicated by the show's huge fan base and the mostly thumbs up critical reception, everything about this show has been deemed marvelous. Everybody loved the way Amy Sherman Palladino used 1950s settings, styles and attitudes for her screwball comedy style story about a Jewish-American princess, shades of Herman Wouk's best-selling Marjorie Morningstar, but with a nod to #MeToo.

The subsidiary cast and the actors playing them were also considered marvelous. That includes Midge's devoted. convention defying butch agent Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein); Midge's parents (Marin Hinkle and Tony Shaloub as Rose and Abe Weissman); Joel Maisel (Michael Zegen); the senior Maisels who are less prosperous than the Weissmans ( Kevin Pollak and Kiera Magura as Moishe and Esther Maisel); Midge's potential second husband Benjamin (Zachary Levi), and fictional version of the real comedian Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby).

My own bottom line: I didn't find myself on the same page as all those marveling about this back to the 50s fantasy. I found most of Midge's comic shtick unfunny. The #MeToo nod to the rampant sexism of the period was just that, a nod that never really came across as genuinely embedded in the titular character's psyche. As for Midge's Jewish family, they leaned too much towards the cartoonish, as did the second season's episodes in the Catskills.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Maisel's journey from rich housewife committed to the prevailing myths about beauty and fulfillment to successful standup comic is not a total bust. It has plenty of assets to support the ravers. Enough to keep me tuned in, and likely to binge my way through Season 3 which is being filmed as I write this.

For starters, there are the costumes. They are indeed wonderfully authentic and great fun. Midge's little black dress is so much like the sexy, form fitting numbers that were a night-out staple for anyone old enough to be part of that era.

Set as it is at a time when men dominated stand-up comedy (in fact, the work place in general), the show does have some trenchant historical aspects— notably in how Midge is presented. Though given different life details . For starter, she's very pretty. But, while she does intriguingly echo the oddball routines of Joan Rivers, in the interest of keeping this a feel-good Disney-ish experience, it's left to a Jane Lynch playing an older character who made a fortune as fat-joke Sophie lady from Queens to embody River's really nasty side. Midge's career trajectory also stirs memories of the radical comic Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby), who's therefore been brought on board as a character to serve as Midge's inspiration and mentor.

Despite my failure to jump onto the bandwagon with those who found the standup routines hilarious and the show overall marvelous, memories ot the many comedians like Bruce and Rivers who are gone, nevertheless got me hooked itno taking this fictionialized nostalgia trip.

What's more, how could I miss seeing a show with a cast featuring a bunch of actors I've loved on stage. And sure enough, most managed to make the most of their shtick-ish characters.

Tony Shaloub may not be quite as unforgettable as his leader of the Egyptian police band inadvertently stranded in a nondescript Israeli town in
The Band's Visit, but he does make the most of the intense, neurotic Abe Weissman. Too bad Katrina Lenk who was his co-star and hostess in that ravishing little musical makes only a couple of brief guest appearances here.

As Abe's wife Rose, Marin Hinkle, who's impressed me since I first saw her in Tony Kushner's Dybbuk, Or, Between Two Worlds, does her utmost to believably play a stereotypical[coca; Jewish mother and also a woman in midlife finding herself hungry-for-more than her luxurious Manhattan life.
Michael Zegen previously played a member of a comedy about a conflicted Jewish family. That was in Joshua Harmon's debut with the Roundabout Theater Company Bad Jews. Zegen is a good enough actor to convincingly evolve from unfaithful jerk into a likeable mensch who supports his wife's to realize what began as his dream. We also see him ably steps in to keep his parents' business afloat. In the several episodes that detour to the Maisels' business, the show's creators do manage to tweak the steretyping by showing that there were social and financial differences in the world Midge and Joel grew up in.

To fulfill their aim to give the 50s screwball comedy genre a feminist twist, the script doesnt let the Maisels to get together again, but neither does it allow Midge to have her happily ever after ending with —what else?—, a nice Jewish doctor. Zachary Levi's Benjamin, plays the doctor she meets in season 2 during the family's Catskill vacation &mdash which for me was a totally unauthentic low point when the shtick is piled on with a trowel . If Zachary Levi's Benjamin were as charming as Georg, the romantic lead he played in the fine revival of the musical She Loves Me, perhaps Midge would have walked down the aisle again instead of holding on to that mcrophone.

My quibbles notwithstanding, It's a dure thing that Rachel Brosnahan will keep doing her Mrs. Maisel act through season 3 which will have 8 instead of 10 episodes. Here's hoping that Sherman-Palladino will find a way to tone down the at times almost offensive shtick and stereotyping so that I too will find it all as marvelous as her fans.

Update: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Season 3
I wish I could say that Season 3 finally put me on the same page as its many fans, but alas, while it's still a thoroughly professional, smartly staged enterprise, buoyed by great costumes and a fine cast, the initial episodes actually had me more engaged than the current ones. In fact, I'll admit that my finger itched to press the fast forward button pretty quickly.

Unlike the lastest season of The Crown, the key characters are played by the same actors. And while this follow-up season moves forward to the 60s it begins pretty much where it eneded, with Midge in bed with Joel (Michael Zegen). But this not being a permanent reunion, she gets out of bed quietly to head for her gig as the opener for singer Shy Baldwin (LeRoy McClain). And, yes, her manager, Susie (Alex Borstein), is again on board. Terrific Tony Shaloub and Marin Hinkle again play major roles, details of which I found unworthy of their talents.

At any rate, if you be long to the audience who think Madge and company are truly marvelous, I'll leave it to you to check out the man and subsidiary plot details. That said, however, there is one aspect of this season that indeed has something to marvel over: And that's the musical soundtrack. The songs belted out by McClain and the Silver Belles girl group duri ng the trour may sound like actual 60s numbers that you can't quite place; but they're actually written specicically for the show by songwriters Curtis Moore and Thomas Mizer (winners of the Fred Ebb Award for excellence in musical theatre songwriting).

Though none of the main players are singers, leave it to the clever creators Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino to somehow figure out to give this enjoyable song another life.


Michael Alon ( Akiva Shtisel )
The members of the the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Haredi community we meet in this series that's been streaming on Netflix since last December' are unfamiliar to most of us. The men spout long beards with side curls, wear black fringed ritual garments, and don big black hats when they go outside. The women sleep with snoods covering their hair and not in the same bed as their husbands.

Even in Israel these practioners of ancient customs and the fact that their young people don't serve in the army has made them outliers, subject to scorn, hostility and controversy. But Shtisel is not a political drama. It's essentially a rather ordinary story of father and son relationships, romantic yearnings that don't fit traditional mating customs, marital conflicts, parental and community opposition to young people exploring talents and urges contrary to the community's ways.

None of the show's female characters are likely to inspire any fashion trends. Neither are the men's ritual outfits and hair styles. For sure, the family patriarch, Shulem Stisel (Dov Glickman), isn't likely to have female viewers swooning. But wait. . .

Like everything that's made Shtisel such an unlikely success, the beard and unsexy outfits not withstanding, plenty of dating age female viewers have been smitten by Michael Aroni's Akiva Shtisel, the youngest Shtisel son who lives with his father. Even those not attracted to romantic soap opera-ish entertainment have been charmed by Akiva's sensitive character Given Aroni's nuanced portrayal they rooted for him to realize his passion for art.

And so, over the course of two seasons and 24 episodes —young and old, male or female, Jewish or not— have succumbed to what some have dubbed Shtiselmania. Viewers one and all hoped that the eager to be married Akiva would end up happily mated — and that he could indeed be the artist he's obviously meant to be. The way it all turned out was left inconclusive enough for plenty of further developments to unfold in a third season.

While the senior Shtisel is gruff, often cruel and hardly a showboat, there was certainly no shortage of women of a certain age willing to cook him meals in hopes of becoming Mrs. Shulem Shtisel #2 —especially Aliza Gvili's Orly Silbersatz, his loyal sceretary at the Yeshiva he heads. The autocratic Shulem too is not a one dimensional figure. He clearly has a soft side. That tender aspect of his character makes it hard for him to do more than accept the meals from potential wives since he feels bound to be true to the memory of his dead wife. In an especially touching scene we see him in front of the closet that belonged to his late wife to breathe in her scent from a row of dresses.

The focus of the relationships explored is on Akiva's troubled love affair with the twice widowed Elisheva (Ayelet Zurer) who is raising a son on her own (for all their inhibitions, the women here are all strong). However , the lives of the rest of the family are also developed into very watvhable sub-plots.

Some of the best scenes are about Akiva's sister Giti Weiss (Neta Riskin) who has a hard time forgiving her husband Lippe (Zohar Shtrauss) for the time he took off for Argentina and left her to take care of their five children. There's also a third romance between young Ruchami Weiss (Shira Haas) and a dedicated Yeshiva student.

Ultimately what has made Shtisel such irresistible viewmg are the universal themes of family bonds, the hold of the dead on the living , and the pull beween new ways of living and tradition — all presented within the very authenticaly detailed framework of a mysterious to us community.

To conclude, my bottom line: I expected The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel to be more fun and marvelous than it was. On the other hand, while Fiddler on the Roof is my all-time favorite musical, a multi-episode drama about an ultra-orthodox family didn't really pull me in. It's only after several of my friends who I knew appreciated good theater urged me to give it a try. And sure enough I was hooked after the first episode and did indeed find Shtisel quite marvelous.

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The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino Rachel Brosnahan (Miriam "Midge" Maise)
Alex Borstein (Susie Myerson)
Michael Zegen ( Joel Maisel)
Marin Hinkle (Rose Weissman,)
Tony Shalhoub (Abe Weissman)

Kevin Pollak (Moishe Maisel)
Kiera Magura (Esther Maisel)
Zachary Levi (Benjamin)
Luke Kirby (Lenny Bruce)
No. of seasons 2 No. of episodes 18 (list of episodes)

Created by Ori Elon and Yehonatan Indursky
Michael Alon ( Akiva Shtisel )
Dov Glickman (Shulem Shtisel)
Ruchami Weiss (Shira Haas)
Hadas Yaron ( Libbi Shtisel)
Neta Riskin (Giti Weiss)
Zohar Shtrauss (Lippe Weiss)
Elisheva Rotstein (Ayelet Zurer)
Aliza Gvili (Orly Silbersatz Banai)

©Copyright 2019, Elyse Sommer.
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