‘The Golden Land’

‘The Golden Land’

Storm delay didn’t dim audience’s appreciation of “The Golden Land”

The National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene’s revival of “The Golden Land” got knocked about by Hurricane Sandy, just as the turn-of-the-twentieth-century Jewish immigrants it celebrates were tossed on the ships that brought them to the “goldeneh medineh” they were so eager to reach. The production at the Baruch Performing Arts Center had to be postponed until the college was open and safe for audiences, but the performance on Nov. 8 played to a full appreciative house. The show, which is the major production of the Folksbiene’s 98th consecutive season, runs through Dec. 2.

Zalman Mlotek, who lives in Teaneck, and Moishe Rosenfeld were commissioned to create “The Golden Land” as a special program honoring the Jewish Daily Forward on its eighty-fifth anniversary. Initially performed in 1982, “The Golden Land” went on tour and then came to off-Broadway as a full theatrical presentation. This revival keeps the book and score from the 1985 production to present a musical history of the great Jewish immigration to the United States from the 1880s through the World War II era.

The numbers may begin with a line or two of Yiddish, but the majority of the show is in English – and what isn’t is translated immediately. Even the supertitles that the Folksbiene usually deploys are not needed here.

Trolling through a wealth of Yiddish songs from the theater and popular music of the day, the attractive young cast of three men and three women sets off with “Mir Forn Kayn Amerike.” Soon enough, they reach Ellis Island and then the Lower East Side, highlighted by the lively number “Watch Your Step.” One song quickly follows another, without much variety in tone or pacing, and that robs the show of a certain emotional complexity. Before we can absorb the depth of “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor,” we rush off to “Amerike, Hurrah for Onkel Sem.” A lot of time is devoted to the growth of the labor movement – the Workmen’s Circle was the original patron, after all – and to the immigrants’ desire to Americanize themselves as quickly as possible. In this time of growing income disparity between the rich and everyone else, these songs seem especially timely.

Veterans Bob Ader and Sandy Rosenberg, Cooper Grodin (who was so good in this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park production “Into the Woods”), Folksbiene regular Daniella Rabbani, Stacey Harris, and Andrew Keltz are all talented and appealing performers, and Grodin has an especially good voice. Their timing seemed a bit off in the performance I saw, but no doubt they will settle into the roles.

“Mayn Shtayteleh Belz,” a song that usually aches with loss, was undermined by being immediately followed by a Menashe Skulnick bit, “It Shouldn’t Happen to a Dog,” and “Papirosen,” the Yiddish version of “The Little Match Girl,” would have benefited from a bit of irony. That song is so ridiculously over the top it needs a little acidity. In general, interspersing news of the Holocaust with vaudeville numbers seemed a strange choice, but the show ends triumphantly with a declaration of the vitality of the Jewish people.

The Folksbiene’s drive to broaden its appeal to a more diverse audience seems to be working – the theater was filled with people representing a variety of ages and ethnicities. Mlotek conducts the very good live band that accompanies the show.

For more information, go to http://folksbiene.org/goldenland.html

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