Review: GableStage Creates Its Own Magnificent ‘The Lehman Trilogy’

The stage is raised higher than the seats for “The Lehman Trilogy” in the small GableStage theater in Coral Gables. It forces you to look up slightly from probably any seat in the house. The reason for its height is technical (trap doors are built in tfor moments in the show when space is needed below). But what it achieves, perhaps by happenstance or divine intervention, is the perspective that you are here to be the observer of 164 years of history of three brothers, “who came to America with nothing … but built an entire universe.”

The stage frames the opening scene of “The Lehman Trilogy” in a Manhattan high-rise building where a janitor (Sean Deam, the only time he’s seen) drags a large trash bag as he’s tasked to clean up a turned upside-down office. Cardboard document boxes are strewn about, chairs are askew, an apple sits solo on the edge of a boardroom table probably left behind in the chaos. Spanish music plays on a radio the janitor has on his cleanup cart and then Spanish news comes on.

The Lehman Trilogy
Brandon Morris, who grew up in Miami and is now based in New York, plays middle Lehman brother, Emanuel, in GableStage’s “The Lehman Trilogy.” (Photo by Magnus Stark)

It’s 2008. Although the radio announcer speaks in a different language, certain words stand out. “Lehman Brothers.” “Bankruptcy.” Wall Street.” Spanish music returns. The janitor plugs in a vacuum and takes his time going over the floor. When he’s done, he unplugs the machine, gathers his things, picks up the apple, turns off the lights and leaves.

Almost out of nowhere, a man with a bald head and a salt and pepper gray beard dressed in a matching three-piece suit, and holding a suitcase is standing lit in a spotlight. But instead of onstage he’s on the same level as the audience in the front of the theater. That he’s up close makes the telling of his story so much more personal. Behind him and above on the completely dark stage are a series of dark panels. White hand-drawn numbers reveal 1-8-4-4. The year. 1844.

And with that, the three-act play about three penniless German-Jewish immigrants who create the American Dream only to have it end in financial ruin begins.

At left, James Zannelli as the divorcee and Mark H. Dold as Bobby Lehman in GableStage’s “The Lehman Trilogy.” (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

Except for bits and pieces of dialogue, the story is told in the third person and spans three hours, not including two 15-minute intermissions. (Don’t be daunted by the time, it flies by and may leave you wanting more when it’s over.)

“The Lehman Trilogy” is at GableStage in Coral Gables’ Biltmore Hotel through Sunday, April 21.

This is a complex play, although you won’t know it by looking at it at face value. A Herculean theatrical task on multiple levels, kudos to GableStage’s producing artistic director Bari Newport for her devotion in wanting to bring this to South Florida audiences, only the fifth production to be done in the U.S. (If you see Newport at a show, ask her how she used a giant cookie to help secure the rights to “The Lehman Trilogy.”)

Only three actors play between 50 and 75 roles, everyone from toddlers to damsels to divorcees, and among them, as well, a Greek diner owner, a Hungarian lamp shop owner, a plantation owner, and the governor of Alabama. There’s never a costume change. Characters are brought to vivid life by the three actors with the use of props taken out of a pocket or subtlety plucked from behind one of the stage panels – a small bouquet, eyeglasses, shawls, cigars, cigarettes, pipes, hats – both ladies and men’s.

James Zannelli, center, and Brandon Morris, right, watch as Mark H. Dold plays hard-to-get as Pauline. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

James Zannelli, whom we meet first, is the eldest Lehman. He’s just off the boat from Rimpar, Bavaria, Germany. His first name is changed to Henry by a port official, who doesn’t understand his Jewish name, Heyum.

Brandon Morris is Emanuel Lehman, who arrives in Alabama three years after his brother, joins Henry in the dry-good business in Montgomery. He’s come through the port of Baltimore, real name Mendel “but here in America everything changes, even your name.” The younger brother, Mayer, played by Mark H. Dold, completes the trio a month later.

All three actors are New York based; however, Morris grew up in Miami and appeared in three GableStage productions when Joseph Adler was producing artistic director: “This Is How It Goes” in 2006, “Fat Pig” in 2007, and “Romance” that same year.

Zanelli only stepped into the role in GableStage’s “The Lehman Trilogy” less than a month before the opening after the actor who was originally cast unexpectedly withdrew. Zanelli had just come off a run as the understudy in a production in Phoenix, so he already knew Henry well.

Dold honed the chops to handle his character from time spent in another marathon production. He was in the original Broadway cast of “The Inheritance,” a two-parter stretching over six hours.

Just as the actors present the illusion that there are multiple characters in the Lehman Brothers story using simple props and loads of talent while working as a tight trio, Newport and company (include in that company Jeni Hacker as associate director) create the atmosphere of the Lehmans, as the director says in her program notes, “In keeping with the vision of creating something from nothing  . . .  a dark world where magic could happen.”

'The Lehman Trilogy'
Mark H. Dold dances on a boardroom table as Bobby Lehman with Jamie Godwin’s groovy projection behind him. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

It’s by far one of the most viscerally intriguing sets, designed by Frank Oliva with projection design by Jamie Godwin, who worked with Newport last year on “A Doll’s House Part 2.”  Paneled flats move smoothly creating palettes for projections, Godwin’s beautiful hand-drawn projections in white and brushstroke-like set the scene. Following along with Henry’s descriptive lines in Act 1, for instance, the projection sets the scene as he speaks, a door appears drawn from white lines: “Only one door of glass and wood with the mezuzah nailed beside it.”

Other times the drawings, white on the black panels, take up an entire background — a 19th-century New York skyline. Her groovy projection adds to one of the most comical moments in the play late in Act III as Bobby Lehman (Dold) stands atop a desk and does the twist. He is 93 years old, he says, maybe 100, maybe 120, maybe 140 and still dancing the twist.

The Lehman Trilogy
GableStage’s Lehman brothers, from left, Brandon Morris as Emanuel, Mark H. Dold as Mayer, and James Zanelli as Henry. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

For the set panels themselves, they join together like a jigsaw puzzle to create different configurations, spaces, and streets, homes, boardrooms, each choreographed with perfect timing by four crew members responsible for the set’s movements. Sound designer Sean McGinley’s original score that plays underneath serves to complement the action. Much of it gets inspiration from a line that Henry says in Act 1 – “like so many others, he stepped into that magical music box called America.” Tony Galaska’s lighting strikes the moods for different eras from the mid-1800s to the 2000s. Camilla Haith’s impeccably created costumes, along with the pieces used for the “supporting characters,” are crucial to the story.

It took a village to build the universe of “The Lehman Trilogy,” including the three actors who astonish with the ability to create the illusion of a world of people. It would be a shame to miss this monumental achievement.


WHAT: “The Lehman Trilogy” by Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power

WHERE: GableStage in the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables

WHEN:  2 pm Wednesday, 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday (additional 7:30 pm performances Tuesdays beginning in April), through April 21.

COST:  $45-65, all with additional $10 service fee (discounts for students, teachers, artists, military and groups)

INFORMATION:  305.445.1119 or gablestage.org.

RELATED EVENT:  Dr. Josh Parshall, director of history at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life will speak about “The Jewish Diaspora in the American South: Southern Jews and the Cotton Economy” at 7:30 pm Tuesday, March 26 at The Hub at Temple Beth Am, 5950 N. Kendall Dr., Pinecrest. Admission is free, but reservation required. Click here for RSVP.

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