By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Playing her young mother on stage who is having an affair with her father is a strange “therapy session” for actress and stand-up comic Sheba Mason. Even stranger, it’s a musical.
Sheba, 31, is the love-child of legendary Borscht Belt comedian Jackie Mason, 86, and her mother Ginger Reiter, who wrote and composed a musical comedy about their 10-year relationship.
After three years on off-Broadway and tours, “Both Sides of a Famous Love Affair: The Jackie Mason Musical” is coming to the Skokie Theater Oct. 12 to Oct. 22. It’s based on the true and hilarious romantic escapades of Jackie Mason.
With a rambunctious cast of eight, the action starts when 46-year-old Jackie Mason (played by David Gordon) spots 20-something Ginger (played by Sheba Mason) at a Miami deli in 1977. Jackie woos her while also courting Trixie, a gorgeous young Latina, and Rosa, a senior citizen with attitude, which causes Ginger some romantic distress. When Ginger becomes pregnant 10 years later, Jackie denies his paternity—while still yearning to be with her—and a complicated relationship begins. Along for the ride is her overbearing mom, Mrs. Olivier (Coleen Tutton), and a humorous cast of off-beat characters. There are original songs like “Ode to the Early Bird Special” and “I Never Met This Yenta.”
In a very early incarnation of the musical, Sheba Mason, then four years old, made her appearance on a synagogue stage, brought out at the show’s end as proof of the union the musical portrays. Her mother originally played herself and Sheba took over as she aged into the role and could outdo her mother’s singing. “I’m really grateful to have this unusual experience,” says Sheba, who performs nightly standup comedy in New York between musical tours. “It’s fun to enter this world.”
Reiter says she always has someone dynamic playing Jackie Mason, who can match his delivery and voice. The characters include Mason’s sidekick, Wooly the Schlepalong (Zach Tabor), who delivers invitations to young women to attend his standup shows.
Reiter was in her 20s when she met Mason at Wolfie’s Delicatessen in Miami Beach. “A woman came over to me and said, ‘Do you want to meet Jackie Mason?’ I said, ‘Who is he?’ My mother said, ‘He’s my favorite comedian.’”
Mason asked Reiter what she did for a living. Her mother said her daughter was a teacher who does belly dancing on the side.
“She must also be a ventriloquist,” he said. “I ask her a question and it comes out of your mouth.”
A musical was a natural fit for a story about Mason, Reiter said. “At every street corner he would stop and do cantorial chanting,” his early career.
Initially he opposed the musical. At the time, Reiter had a successful paternity suit against him and had to take him to court in 1988. “He tried to sue us over the musical, but it was thrown out because I have every right to my story.”
There is nothing really disparaging in the production,” says Reiter, who has moved on in Boca Raton where she is married to a cantor. “I admire him as a comedian. In the play, it just tells the truth.”
What is surprising is the lightness with which both Reiter and Sheba treat what could be seen as a quite painful history.
Sheba Mason lives a block away from her father, who cut off contact with her from the start. She has her father’s comedic chops and full lips. Her humor has been described as Joan Rivers with a modern twist.
The “Jackie Mason Musical” is now in development for Broadway. For Chicago ticket information, visit www.skokietheater.org or call (847) 677-7761.