National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s production of “The Golden Bride” has yichus.
The comic operetta premiered at the 2000-seat Second Avenue Theater in 1923. It ran for 18 weeks, then went on the road across the country, making it as far as Argentina and England. Part fable, part romantic comedy, the show incorporated different aspects of Jewish life at the time, including homesickness for the old country, capitalist fervor, romantic fantasies, and the sentimentality surrounding motherhood.
This season, the Folksbiene is snugly ensconced in the Museum of Jewish Heritage near Battery Park, a particularly suitable spot for the company. The museum’s large auditorium accommodates a sizable crowd, and the acoustics are good. That benefits this production, co-directed by Bryna Wasserman and Motl Didner, which is dominated by songs and music. The opening production number is a good indication of what is to come. A crowd of attractive young performers cram the stage, singing and dancing to “Freyt Aych.” Everyone is rejoicing because a rich American is arriving in their poor Russian shtetl with a marriageable son, Jerome. This rich Americaner has come to collect his sweet orphaned niece Goldele and take her back to America, where she is to become a rich heiress. Her adoptive parents, the innkeepers Pinchas and Toybe, are weepy but happy. The only person dismayed by the upcoming journey is Misha, the handsome revolutionary who has just returned to claim Goldele as his own.
This is the basic storyline, but “The Golden Bride” includes so much more. There’s a masked ball, a number in drag, a hymn to the Soviet revolution, a comic toast to the life of the actor, various love songs, and everything else the producers could think of. Yiddish theater in the first part of the twentieth century in America was not known for its subtlety or dramatic sophistication, and the Folksbiene honors that tradition. “The Golden Bride” was written for an audience exhausted by long hours of work in terrible conditions, who wanted and needed a few hours of distraction and amusement. Pretty girls, rich costumes, melodic tunes, and a happy ending fit the bill.
The Folksbiene has pulled together a cast of 20, many with exceptionally fine voices. The romantic leads, Cameron Johnson as Misha and Rachel Policar as Goldele, have operatic training, and it shows. Their acting skills are not as developed, but this material may be impervious to interpretation. They look good and they sound great, which seemed to be enough for the audience at the show I attended.
Sharper comic timing would have improved Jerome and Khanele’s several numbers. Glenn Steven Allen and Jillian Gottlieb play the second couple, the folks who provide the comedy in a classic musical, and while they work hard, their timing seemed off in the performance I saw. That may improve with practice. Allen gets a lot of mileage out of his comically bad Yiddish — he cannot pronounce the “Kh” in Khanele so he calls her Kanele throughout. The show is in Yiddish with easy-to-see supertitles in English and Russian. Several of the songs are in Russian, including that mysterious paean to the revolution.
The music by Joseph Rumshinsky is ably performed by the orchestra conducted by Teaneck’s own Zalman Mlotek, the Folksbiene’s artistic and music director. Rumshinsky arrived in the U.S. in 1903 and became known as the Jewish Victor Herbert. Lyricist Louis Gilrod, who lived in Newark for a time, became famous for his song “Dos Pintele Yid.” Filled with music and song, “The Golden Bride” is a tribute to the Yiddish theater that entertained several generations of immigrants.