“Today I am happy!” Bryna Wasserman, National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene executive director, told me following the December 8 and 9 Gala launches of “The Golden Bride,” (Di Goldene Kale) a revival of Joseph Rumshinsky’s deliciously amazing operetta at the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s Edmund J. Safra Hall.
This is the first since 1920 that the show has been staged. “It started off as a concert reading at Rutgers… then a concert version in August 5, 2015. We saw the response, put the team together, set design, costumes — all beautiful! — rushed auditions, Actors Equity! We had a short time…and extraordinary team!”
With a cast of more than 20 — most not Jewish — and most non-Yiddish speakers, I was astonished at the cast’s comfort in Yiddish as though to mameloshn (mother tongue) born. “Over 200 auditioned — from the opera and operetta world — not just theatre,” said Wasserman. It was thanks to” Edit Kuper, a Yiddish coach from Montreal, and [conductor and music director] Zalmen Mlotek who took over when she left… Rachel Policar (Goldele) and Jillian Gottlieb (Khanele) have Jewish backgrounds… this was their first experience singing/speaking in Yiddish [Jillian enrolled in the 92nd St. Y to study Yiddish.].
“The only way it can happen so quickly from page to stage is the talent of the team. The direct connection between the audience and performance is magical…. There wasn’t a nuance where the audience didn’t get the irony, the humor, of what this piece represents. They were on their feet before the last note was sounded!” Wasserman mused: “We have to imagine ourselves in the audience in 1923 working in a factory and wanting to come to the theater. In that dream, a fairy tale — [we were] somehow sitting in those seats.”
I told Bryna how impressed I was by Policar and Gottlieb and awed by Cameron Johnson’s performance as Misha — Goldele’s love — whose superb Yiddish, and Russian articulation plus! Kazatzke dance routine is right on key! During the post performance reception, I asked him if he was Russian. He smiled, “I’m Irish from Canada!”
Co-directed by Motl Didner choreography and musical staging by Merete Muenter, and era-accurate lavish costuming by Izzy Fields — if you listen carefully you may catch a fleeting Gilbert and Sullivan moment, a soupcon of a [Yiddish] Nelson Eddy/Jeanette McDonaldish love duet between Goldele (Policar) and Misha (Johnson) with the entire production seasoned with a “Yankee Doodle” American fervor.
The December 8th Gala honored David and Sylvia Steiner, Chairman, Steiner Equities Group LLC and Steiner Building NYC LLC, trustee for The Actors Fund of America and Director of The National Yiddish Book Center. Following the performance —during which honoree Steiner had a surprise amusing walk-on in the production – Folksbiene Board chair Jeffrey Wiesenfeld on stage with cast, touted a roster of Folksbiene cheerleaders. Among the evenings notables were Charles Rose, Patti Kenner, Corey Breier, Mark Mlotek, Feliks Frenkel and Poland’s Consul General Urszula Gacec.
His list of “thank you’s” highlighted Museum Chairman Bruce Ratner for “his vision that brought us here.” Wiesenfeld elaborated on the planned transformation of “the existing space into a bricks and mortar theater. We [the Folksbiene] will finally have a home!”
The audience—on its feet—joined the cast in singing a rousing “Mayn Goldele” (My Goldele). Go and Enjoy! I am still humming some of the melodies.
Lots of Motls, Goldas and Tzeitels, but only one world-famous Tevye — Topol— were on stage at Town Hall for the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene’s June 9 extravaganza “Raising the Roof: A tribute to “Fiddler on the Roof.”
The show seamlessly showcased multi-generational alumni of “Fiddler”— including Pia Zadora – reaching back to the 1967 Broadway opening through its decades’-long, worldwide incarnations. A 91-year young Fyvush Finkel danced onto the stage as Lazer Wolf the butcher, arguing in Yiddish, with Tevye the Milkman Mike Burstyn. Violinist Joshua Bell performed a medley of “Fiddler” themes and Austin Pendleton, the first Motl the Tailor, sang “Miracles of Miracles.”
“I don’t know about you, but for me this has been a hell of an evening,” 90-years-young “Fiddler” lyricist Sheldon Harnick, told the audience. Thanking Folksbiene’s artistic director Zalmen Mlotek “without whom this event could not have happened,” Harnick joined Andrea Martin (Golde in a 2004 revival) in the heartwarming farklempt duet: “Do You Love Me?”
“Lies My Father Told Me” is one of the most ambitious productions in the 99-year history of the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene. The musical has a large and extremely talented cast of 17. It features an innovative, Broadway-caliber set (by John C. Dining). And it has a long and storied history, both as an award-winning film and a play with music.
“Lies” is based on the autobiographical works of Ted Allan, a Canadian writer, who grew up in a poor Montreal neighborhood in the 1920s. His doppelgänger here is David Herman, who lives with his grandfather and parents.
Young David (Alex Dreier, definitely a star in the making) is caught between his beloved Tevye-like Zaida (Chuck Karel) and his father, Harry (Jonathan Raviv).
Zaida is a junk man, who takes David with him on his Sunday rounds, regaling him with Jewish stories and wisdom along the way. Harry fancies himself more modern and constantly belittles the older man and his beliefs.
If the inter-generational battle between religion and secular had been the central plot line, it would have been sufficiently involving. But Harry is also mean and delusional, blinded by ambition and always coming up with hair-brained schemes to make money. If that’s not enough, he’s also — at least by contemporary standards — abusive to his wife and son.
It feels like a bar mitzvah! A wedding!” proclaimed actor, performer Mike Burstyn, emcee at the June 10 National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene Gala Concert which honored Morris Offit, chairman, Offit Capital, award presenter to Offit, NBC Special Correspondent Tom Brokaw; and stage and screen great Joel Grey, recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award. Also honored was Folksbiene veteran I.W. “Itzy”Firestone.
Among the 900-strong packed house at N.Y.U.’s Skirball Center were Austria’s Consul General Ernst Peter Brezovszky, Israel’s consul general Ido Aharoni, and British singing star of 1964 hit “Downtown,” Petula Clark. The hot, hip and heymish revue was launched with a video montage of David Hyde Pierce, and Eric Idle singing “…you won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have Jews!” from Idle’s Broadway hit “Monty Python’s Spamalot.” Burstyn’s first salvo was “You’ve got to Have a Little Mazel” sung in five languages — Yiddish, Hebrew, English, French and Spanish, with a heel-stomping Burstyn explaining that “flamenco was invented by a man during the Inquisition stamping out cockroaches in his cell.”
The over-the-top lineup Included Judy Blazer channeling Yiddish Theatre turn-of-the century legend Bessie Thomashefsky’s signature song “Hentschke;” Joanne Borts and Rachel Yucht replicating the Barry Sisters’ Yiddish version [songwriter Jack Lawrence ne Jacob Louis Schwartz’s] “Yes, My Darling Daughter;” Eleanor Reissa in a savory version of (Isidore Lillian) “Gefilte Fish,” and to a roaring response, Elmore James, singing “Old Man River” in Yiddish: “Do arbet men oyf der Mississippi.”
“Covers,” a new production by experimental theater troupe the Lost & Found Project for the Russian division of the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, attempts to breathe new life into two timeworn themes: young rebellious children and the clash of traditional values in the new world. Premiering May 22 to a packed (and largely Russian-speaking) audience, the show picks up where the troupe’s inaugural production, “Doroga,” left off — young Russian Jewish Americans in present-day Brooklyn, grappling with questions of identity and self-actualization while being smothered by the nagging disapproval of their immigrant parents.
Alex, a once-accomplished investment banker who suffered an emotional breakdown after losing his job, has just moved back in with his overbearing parents who, in proper Russian-Jewish fashion, do not take kindly to his decision to abandon his career and become a musician. His brother Misha, a successful lawyer, also endures their criticism for marrying a non-Jewish woman. Their family drama unfolds while two cousins next door, Sharon and Magda, fight over selling their late grandfather’s apartment.
Immigrant family dramas are by no means new, and though the play’s experimental, minimalist set and instances of breaking the fourth wall add flair to an otherwise tired plot, tropes of the genre are employed without reservation. For instance, the parents’ revulsion to Misha’s new and questionable lifestyle choices — chief among them, a vegetarian diet (clearly the influence of his American wife) — does not even attempt to challenge Russian immigrant stereotypes. In that regard, the roles undermine the message “Covers” strives so hard to convey — that we are all masters of our fate and identity; we choose our “covers” and are not dictated by our past, despite the bearing it has on us.
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