March 20, 2019

One-Man Show Captures the Immigrant Experience in ‘Forever Brooklyn’

Photo by Aimee Nicolas

You don’t have to be Jewish to write a play called “Forever Brooklyn: A Kosher Musical Comedy.” Just ask the playwright: Episcopal Irish-American Philadelphia native Mark W. Curran.

The play, a one-man show about a Jewish kid hoping to make it big in showbiz in the 1950s and ’60s, begins its world premiere run at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks on Jan. 5.

“I do a lot of research and draw from my own experience,” Curran, who now lives in Los Angeles, told the Journal. “I grew up in a mixed neighborhood with a lot of Jewish and Italian families, and I’ve met many people from New York and Brooklyn and heard stories about growing up there. The stories had a similar theme of immigrant parents who tried to assimilate into a new culture. It was a mix of the old and new.”

Books, movies and internet surfing provided further context. Curran watched Woody Allen movies and “The Jazz Singer” with Neil Diamond. He read “Jews of Brooklyn” and “The Neighborhoods of Brooklyn,” both about immigrants in the borough. In addition, when his parents divorced and he was living with his father as a teenager, his mother married a Jewish man, and he was exposed to the Jewish culture at weddings, funerals and bar and bat mitzvahs. 

Curran first had the idea for the show in the mid-1980s. He worked on it off and on over the years before finishing it about six months ago. Casting was the next hurdle. He needed to find a charismatic young actor who could sing, was charming and funny, and could play protagonist Melvin Kaplofkis and all the other characters, including Melvin’s family members, his agent and mobster Vinny Scarmoochie, who conscripts the kid to collect protection money from local business owners. 

Curran ran an ad in Backstage, which drew 2,500 responses in the form of video auditions. After watching every one, which took about six weeks, he narrowed the candidates to 20, and then to 10, before meeting the top two in person. “Danny DiTorrice had the least experience but he won it hands down,” Curran said. “I knew he was the guy from the moment I met him, but I met one other guy just to be sure.”

“It will have a special resonance for a Jewish audience, [but] the ideas of assimilation in a new country and family conflict are universal.” — Mark Curran

In the play, DiTorrice, an Italian-American native of Colorado, performs musical selections that run the gamut from klezmer music to traditional Hebrew songs like “Oseh Shalom,” “Havah Nagilah,” and the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah,” to song parodies that put new lyrics to everything from “Tzena, Tzena” to “Maria” from “West Side Story.” The list reflects Curran’s eclectic tastes.

“It’s influenced by the music I grew up with: Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, musicals like ‘West Side Story’ and ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’” the writer-director said. In his youth, Curran played in bar bands as a drummer and singer in clubs on the East Coast before moving to Los Angeles in 1987.

Going into “Forever Brooklyn,” his objective was to capture the flavor of the immigrant experience and mindset and the struggle between old and new, but to keep it “light and fun and festive, something that, in particular, seniors who grew up in that period would enjoy,” he said. 

Although Curran thinks the play will have a special resonance for a Jewish audience, “the ideas of assimilation in a new country and family conflict are universal,” he said. 

He hopes to take the production elsewhere after the L.A. run, especially to the Jewish communities of southeast Florida. As a show with one actor and virtual video-projection sets, it travels easily, Curran said. He also would love to bring it to New York, “but that depends on investors,” he said. Meanwhile, he’s developing a series of one-act plays.

For now, though, Curran is concentrating on “Forever Brooklyn” and what he would like theatergoers to take away from seeing it. “It’s OK to hold on to the old traditions but to forge a new path. And we should not judge people by their appearance, the color of their skin or ethnicity,” he said. “We don’t clobber people over the head with that, but that’s the essence of it. We’re all children of God.”


“Forever Brooklyn” runs Jan. 5-Feb. 9 at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks.