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Paulanne Simmons

Giving Up the Ghost with Nazis

''Fritz and Froyim''
Directed by John W. Cooper
The Turtle's Shell Theater
300 West 43rd St. at 8th Ave., 4th Floor
Opened June 1, 2007
Wed. thru Sat. 8 p.m., matinee June 16 3 p.m.
$18 (212) 868-4444
Closes June 16, 2007
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons June 6, 2007

Matthew Hardy as Froyim and T.J. Mannix as Fritz.

Turtle Shell Production's new musical, ''Fritz and Froyim'' opens with a ventriloquist (Fritz) trying to deal with his renegade, loud-mouth dummy (Froyim). Their act is a send-up of Nazi Germany, with Fritz the straight man wearing a Nazi armband, and Froyim playing the comic with jokes so bad he would have been jeered off the Borscht Belt.

It soon turns out, however, that Froyim is not a wise guy dummy but a wise guy ghost who was once a comedian that Fritz, a Nazi officer in charge of a concentration camp, had killed during the Holocaust. When Fritz and Froyim are about to lose their gig at a sleazy Homburg cabaret, Frits tells Froyim they're at the end of the line. He's throwing the dummy in the suitcase and retiring. This initiates the flashback that explains how the unlikely duo teamed up and comprises the rest of the play.

The flashback is about two hours long and includes two dozen songs. It gradually reveals how Fritz lost his job, his wife, his standing in the community and perhaps his sanity thanks to Froyim's unsolicited visitations. Fritz tries exorcism, psychotherapy, shock treatments and even a kind of conversion to Judaism (''I Keep a Kosher Home''), all to no avail. He's stuck with Froyim like cream cheese on a bagel.

Although the minor parts are performed by an ensemble cast, the two lead roles, Fritz and Froyim, are played by T.J. Mannix and Matthew Hardy respectively. Tracy Stark, the music director, plays the piano, narrates and occasionally schmoozes with the audience. Sometimes she seems like a female version of Froyim, an in-your-face Jew and proud of it.

There are many nice moments in ''Fritz and Froyim,'' most of them contributed by Stark and Hardy. But the show has the kind of slow clunkiness that is both built into the music and script and exacerbated by John W. Cooper's direction, which aims for a big show on a tiny stage, with Stark trying her best on a keyboard in a theater that would be too small for a modest bar mitzvah.

Mark Barkan and Rolf Barnes' music is at times an engaging combination of Kurt Weill, klezmer and Tin Pan Alley, but after a while the composers seem to run out of ideas and repetition reduces the repertoire to a series of pastiches of songs heard an hour ago. Norman Beim's lyrics too often fall into the June/moon/spoon variety.

''Fritz and Froyim'' is loosely based on material from the Novel The Dance of Genghis Cohn by Romain Gary. Without having read the novel it's hard to tell what potential it held and what may have gone wrong. But the play certainly suffers from a lack of editing and focus.

It isn't until the middle of the second act that Beim (who also wrote the book) gets around to explaining the exact circumstances of Froyim's death and Fritz's culpability. This wouldn't be so bad if the script had raised any curiosity on the part of the audience and if Beim, Barkan and Barnes weren't still more concerned with creating another song that doesn't say much than developing their principal characters. When the dialogue is allowed to carry the action it is often filled with worn-out phrases like ''take the bull by the horns,'' ''I just need a little bit more time'' and ''That's easier said than done.''

It's sometimes hard to understand the creative choices made in ''Fritz and Froyim.'' Why does the psychiatrist's secretary sing about her boyfriend (''Through Life Together'') while her boss is giving Fritz shock therapy? Does Fritz's brother-in-law have a purpose in the play?

''Fritz and Froyim'' has potential, but it needs to be better thought out. After a soft shoe that should have been a show-stopper but isn't, Froyim says, ''It needs work.'' He could well have been talking about the show itself.

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