BWW Reviews: National Yiddish Theatre Charmingly Chronicles the Jewish Immigrant Experience in THE GOLDEN LAND
Review by Stephen Hanks
Have you ever wondered what might have happened to Tevya and Golde and their whole mishpucha had there been a sequel to Fiddler on the Roof?
Well, the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene's production of The Golden Land may be the most unique way to find out how immigrant Russian Jews faired on New York's Lower East Side after fleeing the Czars at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th centuries. The English-language musical punctuated by a mostly Yiddish score is reopening Thursday, December 20 (and will run through January 6) following an initial five-week run that ended on December 2. After its first preview at the end October, Hurricane Sandy had forced the producers to cancel the next nine performances (at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, 55 Lexington Avenue at 25th Street).
The re-opening gives audiences another chance to see a delightful, if flawed, show which is essentially a fictionalized and theatrical version of a PBS documentary on the Jewish immigrant experience in New York (from the turn of the 20th century to the birth of the State of Israel), and built around a score that might be called the "Yiddish Theatre's Greatest Hits." Of the 40-plus musical numbers either hinted at (there are some scenes that include just a few bars of three or four songs) or sung whole in the two-hour production, the majority are Yiddish-language songs, with a few offering English lyrics. Sprinkled throughout this chronological history lesson are songs about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and The Great Depression, a silent movie clip to represent the Jews who became Hollywood film producers, and a recreation of a Yiddish-language radio show, complete with vintage commercial bits.
In staging The Golden Land this year, co-creators Zalmen Mlotek (also the show's Musical Director/Pianist/Conductor and Folksbiene's Artistic Director) and Moishe Rosenfeld are celebrating the 30th anniversary of when the show was first commissioned and performed. There have been many productions through the years, the most recent one a fully Yiddish version produced in Montreal and directed by Bryna Wasserman, who also directs the newest incarnation of the show.
Thanks to a game and energetic group of six actor/singers (photo above, clockwise from left, Andrew Keltz, Sandy Rosenberg, Cooper Grodin, Stacey Harris, Bob Ader, and Daniella Rabbani) who navigate their way through many scene and costume changes, Wasserman (also Folksbiene's Executive Director) is able to tell the story at a borderline breakneck pace without the show seeming too frantic to follow. Oy vey, it's not easy to cover almost 50 years of history in two hours, but Wasserman somehow manages to make the staging work. The downside is that when you're conveying the story of one particular family's experiences over almost half a century-and doing it through more than 40 songs-it's difficult to develop the individual characters enough for the audience to feel invested in them, no matter how charming the cast may be. Hence, The Golden Land comes across as more of a revue or a mini-opera than a traditional book musical.
The seven-piece band led by Mlotek makes one sigh mechaya (with joy), and the klezmer-infused delivery of beautiful Yiddish songs reminds once again why it would be a shame if this wonderful language became extinct. There were song highlights for each member of the cast, including Sandy Rosenberg and Andrew Keltz on the Act I ballad "A Brivele Der Mamen (A Letter to Mother)," the diminutive and adorable Daniella Rabbani on "Oy, I Like Him," the handsome Cooper Grodin on a song about a good union man called "Motl The Operator," the lovely Stacy Harris on the World War II era song, "Papirosn (Buy Cigarettes)," and veteran actor Bob Ader getting into the act in Act II with a heartfelt "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"