Martini Talk: Kleynkunst! & Chuckleball

A funny thing happened the afternoon I took in the National Yiddish Theater's fascinating and entertaining production of Kleynkunst!: Warsaw's Brave and Brilliant Yiddish Cabaret.  In the middle of Rebecca Joy Fletcher and Stephen Mo Hannan's performance of a 1938 comedy sketch that was censored in its day, an alarm went off in the theatre and kept repeating at regular intervals.  The actors seemed oblivious to the noise and kept on going with their farcical scene about a day when the Polish government exiles all the Jews from their county, only to find it causes their entire economy and social structure to collapse.  (Students are rioting because they have no one to beat up.)  I wasn't sure if the noise was a part of the show until a loudspeaker announcement advised us that there was no emergency, just a glitch in the alarm that needed to be fixed.  The actors took a brief intermission until the problem was solved, but though the interruption just turned out to be a small inconvenience, it did serve as a reminder of what it would be like to live in a society where the performance of a satirical sketch would be cause for alarms to go off and shows to be halted.

Kleynkunst! (translated as "little art") is the creation of Fletcher, who extensively researched the material that was performed in Poland's newly emerging Yiddish cabaret houses between world wars.  "Little art" was hip, inexpensive entertainment filled with political and sexual humor performed in a casual atmosphere along with lively songs and dances.  As directed by Michael Montel, her intimate two-person show, funny and snazzily presented, serves as a documentary of an art form that grew in significance as the world outside was going mad.  It's also a terrific showcase for two exceptional performers who mix show-biz pizzazz, sharp comedy skills, tragic pathos and strong, vibrant singing voices.

Fletcher and Hannan alternate between performing in English and Yiddish, with supertitle translations provided in both English and Russian.  At first the material is rather carefree and sentimental, as in a sprightly ditty where a frustrated wife tries to get her husband to do the latest dances with her ("Kum, Leybke, Tantsn!") or "The Ararat Hymn," sung in tribute to Warsaw's most popular Yiddish theatre.  But by the late 1930's, when the occupying Nazis financed the cabarets in order to keep the ghettoized Jews distracted, Kleynkunst! turns dark and immensely emotional as performers express their distaste for taking blood money and take to street singing in the slums.

Great art often emerges from great sorrow and Kleynkunst!, even when it's at its silliest and most irreverent, is a memorable tribute to the importance and lasting power of art.

On a much lighter note I had a great time at the latest edition of Chuckleball, the musical revue which is essentially Forbidden Broadway for sports nuts.  Creator Jason Goldstein, who co-directs and co-authors the continually updated show along with Ian Nemser, is very much a fan of that Off-Broadway satirical institution, as well as its politically-minded cousin Capital Steps.  Together they've come up with an extremely funny, fast-paced topical revue of song parodies (showtunes, pop hits and standards) that spoof the back page headlines of your daily paper.

The show that has Yankee fans lamenting, to the tune of Rent's big song, that it's been "five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred pitchers" since their last world championship, has Barry Bonds singing his own version of a Tony Bennett classic, "I Don't Get Booed In San Francisco," and has football fans asking, to the tune of the Baha Men's hit, "Who Let The Dogs Fight?," certainly requires a decent knowledge of the sporting news in order to get the jokes.  But even if you have no idea why James Dolan and Isiah Thomas have changed the words of "Hakuna Matata" to "Anucha's Ta-Tas" or why former Senator George Mitchell appears as a Harold Hill figure trying to end the trouble of human growth hormones in baseball ("Oh yes a ban will do it my friends./Yes a steroid ban, do you hear me?") the clever lyrics, spirited staging and performances of the young and very talented cast can keep you laughing all night.

Noah DeBiase Mike Mitchell, Jr., Katy Daniel and Justin Senense must be in constant motion throughout the 90 minute show, as they use an assortment of costumes and wigs to change themselves into Tiger Woods, Maria Sharapova, Don King, David Beckham, Michelle Wie, George Forman, King Booker, Tom Glavine and a league full of others, while frequently being called on to sing backup vocals from offstage.  I couldn't say for certain if they were actually doing impersonations of all the celebs' voices, but, for those I'm familiar with, I absolutely recognized the persona the athletes project while playing.  All four can power belt with impressive strength, as the pop song score demands, but they also possess an energetic sense of fun and silliness.  Music director Meg Zervoulis provides fine accompaniment on piano.

This is Chuckleball's second stint in New York since its inception in 2004 and it has been touring colleges, corporate events and regional engagements since then.  Subtitled Jailhouse Jocks, this edition features material covering former NBA ref Tim Doneghy's betting scandal, football player Pacman Jones' troubles with the law and, of course, the latest on O.J. Simpson.

When a new musical comes to town I usually try and imagine what the gang at Forbidden Broadway will do with it.  Now, when a sports story makes headlines, I'll be thinking of Chuckleball.

Michael Dale's Martini Talk appears every Monday and Thursday in BroadwayWorld.com.

Top photo by Jeff Fasano: Rebecca Joy Fletcher and Stephen Mo Hannan in Kleynkunst!; Bottom photo: Mike Mitchell Jr., Noah DeBiase, Katey Daniel and Justin Senense in Chuckleball

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