|Daniella Rabbani and Shane Baker cavort in “Seltzer Nights.” Bernard Mc Williams|
MC David Mandelbaum told the friendly and enthusiastic audience at the Castillo Theatre last Saturday night that “a tzubrokhenem Yiddish is besser fun an eleganten English,” which means a broken Yiddish is better than an elegant English. If so, there was plenty of tzubrokhenem Yiddish on stage to prove his point.
The artistic director of the New Yiddish Rep, Mandelbaum also is a co-creator, along with Shane Baker, Beck Lee, and Frank London, of the Rep’s new project, “Seltzer Nights,” now playing at the Castillo on Manhattan’s far West Side one Saturday night per month for the next three months.
Described as an immersive musical, “Seltzer Nights” is in the development stage, with the novelty that the development is happening in public. On April 18, May 9, and June 13, theatergoers can see the company build a musical based on Yiddish vaudeville and help it along with their suggestions.
The Yiddish Rep has produced some excellent shows, including the outstanding Yiddish version of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and the highly entertaining “Big Bupkis: a Complete Gentile’s Guide to Yiddish Vaudeville,” so there is reason to believe that the final “Seltzer Nights” will be successful. Judging by Saturday’s performance, though, there is a way to go. In addition to an unevenly talented cast, there seemed to be a lot of general confusion. Of course, it was just the company’s first try, and the seasoned performers, such as Steve Sterner and Daniella Rabbani, already were hitting their marks.
The show is a mishmash of sexual innuendo, jokes, songs, a magic act, and assorted foolishness. The audience is encouraged to express its reaction to the material, and some ringers have been placed strategically to rev up the crowd. The first number with Marian Rich and John Rankin involved teaching the audience a dirty ditty, and people cheerfully went along. Familiar Yiddish songs such as “Ikh Hob Dikh Tzu Fil Lieb” and “Yiddishe Mame,” sung by Amy Coleman and Ilan Kwittken respectively, were less effective. The first showstopper was Daniella Rabbani’s “Fokhn,” a hilariously smutty version of a burlesque fan dance. Another standout number was the tongue-in-cheek translation of “Papirosen,” the incredibly maudlin song about a homeless child selling cigarettes in the street. Think Yiddish “Little Match Girl.” This number was part of “The Essence: A Yiddish Theatre Dim Sum,” a Fringe Festival presentation that was developed by the New Yiddish Rep in 2007, starring Allen Lewis Rickman, Yelena Shmulenson, and Steve Sterner.
Obviously, this is not a show for children, unless you want to do a lot of explaining. But despite the somewhat off-color jokes, “Seltzer Nights” maintains a sunny innocence. Yiddish vaudeville attracted a wide range of people, including families, so it couldn’t be too salacious, after all. And there is something determinedly upbeat and cheerful about the performers, even when they have forgotten the words and are singing off-key.
Like the Folksbiene National Yiddish Theater, the New Yiddish Rep recognizes that few Americans speak Yiddish these days aside from the ultra-Orthodox – who don’t go to the theater – so they are careful to translate the songs and skits. Rather than supertitles (the Folksbiene’s preferred method), the performers in “Seltzer Nights” switched smoothly between languages so there was no danger of missing anything. That’s easier to do in a cabaret-style show than in a full-length play, and it seemed to work well.
If you’ve ever wanted to write a show or wondered how a show’s creators could have thought it actually worked, here’s your chance to get it right. For more information, go to www.newyiddishrep.org.