When the operetta “The Mikado” made its 1885 London debut at the Savoy Theatre, its creators — lyricist William Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan — could not have imagined that in 2010, in New York City, the cast would include a Jewish cantor (a woman at that!).
Backstage at the City Center for the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ January 8 opening night production of “The Mikado,” Amy Maude Helfer, fan in hand and about to don makeup and kimono, told me, “Yes, I am a cantor at Temple Beth David in Cheshire, Connecticut.” Helfer, whose grandmother fled Lublin, Poland, at the turn of the century, mused, “My mother was convinced that we are related to Kurt Weill because her maiden name is Weill.” Helfer also portrays the character Kate in “The Pirates of Penzance” and is an ensemble member in NYYGASP’s new production of “Ruddigore.” Under the baton of the company’s founder and artistic director, Albert Bergeret, this year’s “Mikado” is as up to date as the latest twittergram and is a not-to-be-missed delight. Across the aisle from me sat Amir Shaviv, assistant executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. After the applause died down, he told me, “I’ve been a Gilbert & Sullivan fan since I came here from Israel in 1973.”
As in past productions of “The Mikado,” there was the singing of the show-stopping “List of Personages Who Will Not Be Missed,” performed by the character Pooh-Bah (Louis Dall’Ava), lord of every political position imaginable. Tiger Woods got a 15-second oblique mention, as did New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg. Dall’Ava’s broad portrayal of the court functionary who is addicted to bribery from either side of the aisle has earned him the 2005–2006 Isaac Asimov Award for Artistic Achievement. According to the program notes, the award was established in memory of “a prolific science fiction writer and Yiddish speaker and Gilbert & Sullivan enthusiast.” NYGASP’s production schedule runs through January 17.
No sooner did the America-Israel Cultural Foundation’s president, William Schwartz, tell the audience at its January 10 70th Anniversary Count the Stars Gala, “One year ago [the foundation] was put in jeopardy by — it’s hard for me to say — Bernard Madoff,” than Carnegie Hall’s Isaac Stern Auditorium resonated with the sound of graggers, those grating noisemakers that accompany the mention of the evil Haman at Purim celebrations. Schwartz thanked the American and Israeli donors whose “superhuman efforts” helped revive the foundation. The gala’s “stars” included violinists Yefim Bronfman and Pinchas Zukerman and a very toned Tovah Feldshuh, who told the full house: “After I changed my name from Terri-Sue to Tovah Feldshuh, people assumed I was Orthodox; I’m not. That I was kosher; I’m not. But I am deeply involved in the Jewish community.” The first American to receive AICF’s prestigious Aviv Award, Feldshuh, who in past tour-de-force impersonations portrayed Golda Meir in “Golda’s Balcony” and Polish rescuer Irena Gut Opdyke in “Irena’s Vow,” belted out a medley of American musical classics whose sources were either liturgical or from the Yiddish music arena. Feldshuh sang George and Ira Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from “Porgy and Bess”; the song’s provenance was the blessing over the Torah. She also performed a Russian lullaby that morphed into the Gershwins’ “My One and Only,” and the Yiddish lullaby “Shlof Zhe Mayn Kind” (“Sleep My Little Babe”), which she sang in mameloshn and which evolved into “Of Thee I Sing, Baby!”
AICF’s King Solomon Award was presented to Jason Arison, chairman and CEO of the Ted Arison Family Foundation. According to Schwartz, the foundation “rescued the AICF from the devastation Madoff wrought.” Graciously accepting the award, Arison stated, “Our family is privileged to participate.” Then he pledged an additional $2.5 million, to be “equally divided over the next five years.” The program included works by Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Franz Schubert, Mozart and Avner Dorman. A special treat was the “four hand” performances of three of Antonin Dvorak’s OP 20 Slavonic Dances, performed by three duos of hip-to-hip-on piano-bench jostling pianists: Shai Wosner and Benjamin Hochman, Orli Shaham and Joseph Kalichstein, and Alon Goldstein and Inon Barnatan — all AICF alumni. Taking a bow from her seat on the auditorium’s second tier, Vera Stern was lauded by Schwartz for her decades-long dedication to AICF. “For 40 years, Vera nurtured and guided young artists and singlehandedly made an impact on Israel’s cultural development.”