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Lyrics Sparkle in Yiddish ‘Pirates of Penzance’

Poetry, Robert Frost wrote, is what gets lost in translation. Or not, as the case may be. Witness the work of Al Grand, the man behind the Yiddish version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance,” which was presented recently by the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene. Grand’s “Di Yam Gazlonim!” which ran until November 12 at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, under the direction of Allan Lewis Rickman, succeeded in part because Grand made no pretense whatsoever of attempting a literal translation of William S. Gilbert’s lyrics. Instead, he sacrificed accuracy for the higher virtue of wit, seeking, above all, to maintain the humor and scansion of the original verse.

This is harder than it seems. There have been many parodies of Gilbert’s songs, including several of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General,” perhaps the most famous item in the Gilbert and Sullivan canon. Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements,” which lists every entry in the periodic table, is a personal favorite. But it is one thing to mimic Gilbert’s intricate double and triple rhymes in English. (Think of how Gilbert rhymes the words “historical” and “categorical,” or “mathematical” and “quadratical,” in the major-general’s song, choosing pairs of words in which several syllables rhyme.) It’s another to achieve the same effect in a different language. Yet that is precisely what Grand has done, pairing “Hanukkah” with “harmonica” and “photografia” with “mafia.”

He also ably captures the silly, giddy humor that has endeared Gilbert and Sullivan to generations of fans, albeit by turning the whole production into a string of Jewish in-jokes. In the original operetta, a slightly deaf nurse named Ruth mistakenly apprentices her young charge, Frederick, to become a pirate rather than a pilot. In Grand’s version, Fayvl is a former yeshiva student whose guardian, Rivke, pledges him to a bunch of sea-going gonifs with knives in their teeth, whom she mistook for kosher slaughterers. The opening chorus and solo, “Pour, O Pour the Pirate’s Sherry,” becomes a bagels-and-seltzer affair, with Gilbert’s “To make us more than merry, let the pirate bumper pass” rendered as “Un derlang undz beygl un seltzer; veln mir ale freylekh zayn!” (“Give us bagels and seltzer; it’s a regular party!”) And the finale of Act I is transformed into a paean to the Jewish nation.

Grand’s lyrics — and Sullivan’s music — may have been the best thing about the Folksbiene production, which marked the beginning of the newly renamed theater’s 92nd season. Despite a few wavering pitches, Jacob Feldman as Fayvl and Dani Marcus as Malke, his love interest, acquitted themselves well, bringing the kind of trained voices and dramatic-comedic gifts that the material requires. And Stephen Mo Hanan, as the major-general (“der groyser general”), rattled off his lyrics with a punctilious aplomb that would have satisfied the most hardcore G&S fan. Still, the rest of the players were a mixed lot, with enough weak links in the male chorus to undermine some of the larger set pieces. Gilbert and Sullivan may be light opera, but the vocal demands of the roles can be considerable, and when they aren’t met, one can’t help but notice.

What was true of the voices was true of the sets and, most egregiously, the musical accompaniment. One might argue that the bare-bones stage design, with its simple painted backdrops, was in the spirit of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company’s original productions in London. Yet thanks to the efforts of the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players, led by the indefatigable Albert Bergeret, New York audiences have grown accustomed to much higher production values. Bergeret’s depiction of the Cornish coast includes fake boulders and elaborate, scaffolded sets. And his pirates, young maidens, and major-general look as if they might have walked off the lot of an old Errol Flynn movie — ruffled shirts, gold braids and all. In comparison, the Folksbiene’s sets and costumes looked decidedly low rent.

Worse still, the musical accompaniment was provided by two electric keyboards (one manned by Folksbiene’s executive director, Zalmen Mlotek) and a sole clarinetist. Grand may have taken liberties with Gilbert’s lyrics, but Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music was left intact. And in order to be properly appreciated, this stuff demands a real pit orchestra. When the overture began to sound prior to the curtain coming up on the first act, I almost laughed — and not from joy.

In New York City, where audience expectations are high and good musicians are plentiful, there’s no excuse for skimping on essentials. And you have to wonder about the wisdom of staging what looks like a community theater production of a well-known work in the theater capital of the world. That, in turn, made me wonder about the Folksbiene’s mission of attracting “vital new audiences” to Yiddish theater. “Di Yam Gazlonim!” was the first production to feature supertitles in both English and Russian as part of the theater’s effort to cultivate followers among the city’s growing Russian Jewish population. And the Sunday matinee I attended drew a good crowd. Yet most of the heads I counted featured hair that was either gray or AWOL, and there were very few teens and young adults in attendance. Grand’s lyrics, with their clever rhymes and constant humor, stood as good a chance as anything in the Folksbiene’s repertoire of attracting a younger audience. Going cheap on sets, costumes and music was no way to capitalize on a good thing.

Alexander Gelfand is a writer living in New York City.

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