By ALAN SMASON, Special to the CCJN
For the third year in a row the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbeine (NYTF) has presented a major theatrical production in Yiddish at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. This time out, it is “Amerike – The Golden Land,” a piece that was first performed 35 years ago as an homage to Yiddish theatre.
Yiddish musicals had their heyday in the years between the two World Wars, but once the flood of immigrants was turned into a trickle by the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Johnson-Reed Act three years later, fewer Jews arriving on American shores meant less Yiddish was spoken.
It is estimated that at its most popular time, Yiddish theaters had between 20 and 30 performances of musicals, plays, operetta and vaudeville weekly with tens of thousands in attendance.
Those Jews who arrived after the Holocaust largely chose to speak English as a primary language and Yiddish, with its rich history of being the language spoken by European Jews in disparate lands (especially in the theatre), was relegated to a doomed status. Most Yiddish theaters located in New York were shut down or converted into movie houses or other uses by the time America entered World War II.
Over the course of the previous two years, NYTF presented a remounting of “Di Goldene Kale,” one of the most successful of Yiddish musicals first presented in 1927. The work was painstakingly reconstructed by music director Zalman Mlotek, who conducted a 14-piece orchestra and worked with top vocalists to restore it to the stage and critical acclaim.
Following this success, Mlotek and his collaborator, book writer, Moishe Rosenfeld, returned to their earlier collaboration of “Amerike – The Golden Land,” a pastiche of popular Yiddish songs that retold the stories of the Jewish immigrants from far off lands in Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Byelorussia and Germany. After its initial run in New York in 1982, the piece enjoyed a concert version in Toronto, Detroit and Cleveland and returned triumphantly to the Central Synagogue auditorium. It had seen success on stages in Philadelphia and as part of an international tour that went to Italy.
Mlotek takes up the baton and tickles the ivories as he directs a scaled-down orchestra of seven other players in more than 40 pieces of music, some of which slam into each other while English supertitles are projected above the stage and the performers.
Directed by Bryna Wasserman, the 95-minute work which runs without intermission is divided into 11 sections, the first half of which revolve about the arrival of the immigrants, their incorporation into New York City and society, their observance and work opportunities (or lack thereof) and their commitment to American citizenship.
The latter half concerns itself with an examination of several of the gems from early Yiddish theatre, songs heard over the radio or in film and songs made popular during the Depression era, the most noted of which was Jay Gorney and E. Y. “Yip” Harburg’s “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”
The ensemble of cast members includes Glenn Seven Allen (Oppenheimer) and Alexandra Frohlinger (Sadie), both with noted Broadway credits. Both Allen and Frohlinger’s primary roles are supported by cast members Dani Marcus (Fannie), Daniel Cahn (Joe), David Perlman (Izzie), Stpehanie Lynne Mason (Gussie), Jessica Rose Futran and Christopher Tefft. Chorus members included Maya Jacobson, Isabel Nesti, Raquel Nobile, Bobby Underwood, Grant Richards and Alexander Kosmowski.
The musical pieces are quite splendidly rendered and powerful with hauntingly beautiful harmonies. However, by covering more than half a century of history in one extended act, bookwriters Rosenfeld and Mlotek give the impression they are overreaching.
Merete Muenter is credited with movement rather than choreography since most of the players in actuality made appearances on stage or moved from one position to another.
The work ends with the recitation of the 1883 Emma Lazarus poem “The New Colossus,” which was affixed to the side of the Statue of Liberty two decades after its arrival in New York harbor. It was set to music in 1959 by Irving Berlin (“Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor”), a reference to the hope America offered to those that found freedom within its shores.
“Amerike – The Golden Land” finishes its run at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City (36 Battery Place) on Sunday, August 20, 2017.