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Beate Hein Bennett

Hope, Work, a Song, and a Dance

"Amerike - The Golden Land"
Written by Moishe Rosenfeld and Zalmen Mlotek.
Directed by Bryne Wasserman
July 4 – August 6, 2017
National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene
at the Museum of Jewish Heritage
Admission: $35 to $60,
For information about performance dates and times and tickets,
go to www.nytf.org or call 212-213-2120, ext. 206
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett July 10, 2017

AMERIKE - THE GOLDEN LAND -- Alexandra Frohlinger. Photo by Victor Nechay.

Shakespeare’s line “If music be the food of love, play on” could very well be the guiding motto for the revival of Folksbiene’s musical journey through 20th century Jewish immigration to America-- New York to be specific—that takes us into Yiddishkeit and Yiddishland with all the requisite humor and pathos embedded in the Jewish psyche. Moishe Rosenfeld, the librettist and Zalmen Mlotek, the Artistic Director of NYTF and Music Director/Conductor created a panoramic tapestry of Jewish immigrant life with its origins in Russia and Eastern Europe where poverty and pogroms drove the young to seek a better fortune in “Amerike, de goldene medine.” However, the mythical golden land proved to be not so golden but a rather thorny, bumpy, crowded alien place where a new identity had to be forged in order to survive. (A famous joke: A Jew asked by a stern Ellis Island officer about his name, his befuddled response “shon farghesn” makes Itshik into Sean Ferguson.) Originally created and produced in 1982 on the occasion of the 85th anniversary of the Yiddish newspaper Forward, the musical has had several incarnations. This production, directed by Bryne Wasserman, was first performed at Baruch Performing Arts Center in 2012, but has been further developed and adapted for the space at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the present performance home of NYTF.

Scenic designer Jason Lee Courson provides a variable performance space with movable side panels and a back panel on which projections illustrate a specific period and place or abstract illumination creates a certain mood. Yael Lubetzky’s lighting design enhances the sculptural effect of the actors. Handsome period appropriate costumes, designed by Izzie Fields, allow actors to execute Merete Muenter’s lively choreography freely. Bryne Wasserman’s direction delineates for each actor a distinct personality in each scene and yet shapes the ensemble into flexible groupings that underscore the social aspect of Jewish immigrant experience through the different epochs ranging from before World War I through the gay 1920s, the Depression, World War II, the Holocaust, and Rebirth. All scenes are arranged chronologically around popular songs from Yiddish theater and folklore or popular topical mainstream songs, some in Yiddish translation. References to historical events are presented through specific situations and character sketches, some humorous, such as the 1920s Yiddish WEVD radio hour, replete with commercials and a Yiddish weatherman, some tragic, such as the 1911 Triangle Sweatshop Fire, the songs at times being ironic counterpoints. One stunning example is the famous “Roumania, Roumania” which Daniel Kahn sings with an intensely bitter irony after a reference to the 1941 pogrom in Iasi, Romania where 12,000 Jews were murdered in the course of a weekend. This is part of a series of scenes that portray the painful reality during World War II when American immigrant Jews were losing their relatives “back home” to the ravages of the Holocaust while America had closed its borders.

AMERIKE - THE GOLDEN LAND --(clockwise from far left) Alexander Kosmowski; Isabel Nesti; Alexandra Frohlinger; Danie L Kahn; David Perlman; Stephanie Lynne Mason; Bobby Underwood; Grant Richards; Raquel Nobile. Photo by Victor Nechay.

The cast is an ensemble of accomplished actors who sing, dance, and portray an array of Jewish characters. Glenn Seven Allen plays Oppenheimer, who becomes a successful makher. Alexandra Frohlinger plays Sadie as she grows from a pixie child, physically reminiscent of Molly Picon, to a smart independent working woman. Joe, the rebel rouser and union man, always ready with the accordion to make music, is played with particular passion by Daniel Kahn who launches into the union song “Motl Der Operayter” with a provocative Brechtian gusto. Dani Marcus portrays Fannie with delicate sensibility that is contrasted by luscious and gutsy Gussie played by Stephanie Lynne Mason. David Perlman is a mercurial Itshik/Izzie, aka Sean Ferguson, never missing an opportunity to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, a sure source of humor. They are supported by a chorus of energetic actor/singer/dancers: Maya Jacobson, Alexander Kosmowski, Isabel Nesti, Raquel Nobile, Grant Richards, and Bobby Underwood.

Hidden from view but integral to the work is the superb orchestra under Zalmen Mlotek’s energetic direction as the musical director/conductor/pianist. He is supported by the phenomenal clarinetist/reed player Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch, a Klezmer musician to the core, originally from Minsk –he is also a musicologist of Yiddish folk music. Katsumi Ferguson on violin, trumpet player Jordan Hirsch and trombonist Daniel Linden, bass player Dmitry Ishenko and percussionist Sean Perham complete the sound. At the end of the performance the audience receives a special treat when the orchestra comes out on stage and plays a jam session of unrivalled joyous Klezmer music. The journey through the turbulent life of Yiddishland comes thus to an end and the audience like a huge family reunion is on its feet with joy—thus connecting the Museum of Jewish Heritage to the living spirit of Yiddishkeit.


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