September 23, 2019

Spectator – A ‘Return’ With Echoes

Sonia Levitin’s musical, “The Return,” based on her novel of that name, revolves around Operation Moses, the mid-1980s airlift that brought most of Ethiopia’s Falasha Jews to Israel. But in many ways, this tale of escape echoes the Holocaust in its descriptions of prejudice and massacres in a region of the world that has since endured a genocide in nearby Rwanda, the scourge of AIDS and, more recently, a humanitarian crisis in Darfur.

If these Jews had remained in Ethiopia, there might have been a second Holocaust, a point implied in “The Return,” which will be presented as a work in progress in previews this weekend at the MET Theatre before a planned run in the fall.

The Holocaust allusion resonates for Levitin, who was 3 years old when her mother escaped Berlin with her three children in 1938. Her mother is the inspiration for the wise older woman of the play, Weizero Channa, who vows to see Jerusalem despite her failing health.

While Levitin’s novel, “The Return,” won the PEN Award and National Jewish Book Award, one might ask if this is apt material for a musical.

Levitin had never written a play or even lyrics before, but calls the musical the “most wonderful, creative form,” an egalitarian template that can depict and appeal to anyone.

The subject matter is especially topical at a time of national debate over immigration. The Falashas, of course, were immigrants, as well, and became Israeli citizens roughly 20 years ago.

The origin of the Falasha Jews is “shrouded in mystery,” Levitin says. Her score includes a song about the Queen of Sheba, said to be the matriarch of the Falashas, who likely gave birth to some of King Solomon’s children some 3,000 years ago.

Although the show — directed by Bo Crowell, with choreography by Donald McKayle and music by William Kevin Anderson — contains a fledgling romance, with Channa acting as matchmaker, the musical is mostly about the pilgrimage from Ethiopia to Israel. Along the way, some are beaten; others are killed. But the immigrants’ spirit, embodied in the play’s title, cannot be extinguished or denied.

“The Return,” will be presented May 20, 3 p.m., and May 21, 7 p.m., at the MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave, Hollywood, (323) 957-1152.