With his innate ability to hold an audience in the palm of his hand, Mike Burstyn could be a star in any language. He could sing a song in Sanskrit and still bring people to tears. He could crack a joke in total gibberish and still nail the punch line.
Fortunately for the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre (and its audience), Burstyn is currently performing in his mamaloshn, leading people down memory lane as the star of Folksbiene’s musical revue, “On Second Avenue.”
Yiddish is inscribed in Burstyn’s DNA: His parents were Yiddish theater giants Pesach’ke Burstein and Lillian Lux. As a stage performer, Burstyn got his start in Yiddish theater at age 7 before moving on to Broadway (“Barnum,” “Ain’t Broadway Grand”). With “On Second Avenue,” a nostalgic tribute to the Yiddish stage, he goes back to his roots.
Burstyn possesses the perfect blend of mensch-next-door familiarity and larger-than-life charisma to charm any audience, and he serves up the right combination of humor and pathos to sell any musical number. Whether he’s hamming it up in “Rumenye, Rumenye” or dishing out mother-in-law jokes with vaudevillian flair, the audience can’t help but laugh, clap and sing along.
At the beginning of Act II, a film clip shows Burstyn’s father singing a light number about a Jewish immigrant in Mexico. Burstyn follows the clip with his own live performance of his father’s “Galitsyaner Cavalero”; it’s shtick — right down to Burstyn’s ill-fitting sombrero — but also homage. And that’s exactly the tone that works best in the show.
The other performers also understand this balancing act, trying to be reverent here but silly there. Robert Abelson and Lisa Rubin are particularly adept: He shows off his powerful pipes while singing the praises of alcohol in “Di Mashke” in Act I, and draws laughs during a comic monologue in Act II by doing little more than moaning; she shines in the romantic “Ikh Hob Dikh Tsu Fil Lib,” but also elicits grins with her spin on “Yidl Mitn Fidl.”
Moishe Rosenfeld and Zalmen Mlotek created the bilingual “On Second Avenue” in 1986 as a cross between a greatest-hits musical showcase (mostly in Yiddish, with English supertitles “for the Yiddish-impaired”) and a dramatized history lesson (mostly in English). Under the direction of Bryna Wasserman, artistic director of the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, Montreal, the current revival teaches a little and entertains a lot. Throughout, conductor Jeff Buchsbaum keeps the pacing peppy as he deftly leads his onstage band through more than 50 songs by such legends as Abraham Goldfaden, Aaron Lebedeff, Molly Picon and Jacob Jacobs.
The show is not an unadulterated success: The second act drags. The commentary (in English) explaining the history of Yiddish theater is sometimes reductive. The comedy (also in English) is well worn — jokes about Jewish cannibals, wisecracking widows and “three men in a shvitz” aren’t exactly fresh. But in the end, it doesn’t matter. The audience starts clapping in rhythm during the very first number, and when the show closes with “Sheyn vi di Levone,” people are singing along in their seats, wondering just one thing: How do you say “encore” in Yiddish?
Wayne Hoffman is managing editor of the Forward.