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Two views of "Amerike - The Golden Land"

Beate Hein Bennett
Glenda Frank

Hope, Work, a Song, and a Dance
by Beate Hein Bennett

"Amerike - The Golden Land"
Written by Moishe Rosenfeld and Zalmen Mlotek.
Directed by Bryne Wasserman
July 4 – August 20, 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.

By Glenda Frank

Photo by: VICTOR NECHAY/Properpix.com

 “Amerike – The Golden Land, ” a musical by Zalmen Mlotek and Moishe Rosenfeld. Directed by Bryna Wasserman.
National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF) at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place, NYC.
 July 4 – Aug. 20, 2017.  
Sun., Wed. Thurs., 2 PM; Mon., Thurs., 7:30 PM; Fri., 12 PM; Sun., 6.  $35-60.  
For tickets and  information, contact 212-213-2120, ext. 206, 866-811-4111 or or www.nytf.org.
Reviewed by Glenda Frank

From 1880 until 1924 almost two million Jewish emigrants fled the poverty and pogroms of Eastern Europe to travel, mostly in steerage like my great-grandmother and her four year old daughter, to the Golden Land. “Amerike” (which includes the 1940s) is their musical, a gorgeous tribute to their joys, fears and struggles in a strange land. Don’t miss it.

The narrative, with its personal voices rising out of the shared experience, begins with fear and hope in half a dozen cities in Europe. The snow falls (set and projections by Jason Lee Courson) and the cast sings “Mir Furn” (We’re Going to America) and “Vi Shver S’iz Tsu Sheydn” (How Hard It Is to Leave the Old Home). As the company sings in Yiddish and dances, English and Russian translations are projected overhead.

The Ellis Island segment is fraught with the anxiety of anyone who must pass a test over which they have little control. One man, convinced he will impress the immigration official with a new name, practices has a melt down when questioned. He explains that he forgot his name. The official nods and writes down “Ferguson,” Yiddish for “forget” (“fargesn”) but to the rest of the world an Irish name. The story of a single father separated from his children, who are earmarked for return, is gut-wrenching (“Lozt Arayn,” Let Them in). How do you explain when no one speaks your language? The songs, mostly popular numbers by period lyricists and composers, have been orchestrated by Pete Sokolow and Zalmen Mlotek to delight the contemporary ear.

The new world is dangerous, with thieves, challenges to the immigrants’ core beliefs and family ties, and little opportunity to find the promised gold in the streets (“Dem Pedlers Brivele,” A Peddler’s Letter). The company warns “Vatch Your Step” with words by the legendary Yiddish heart-throb Boris Thomashefsky (1868-1939) of the People’s Theatre. Working conditions are brutal (“Shnel Loyfn Di Reder,” The Wheels Turn Quickly) and sometimes fatal: “Ballad of the Triangle [Factory] Fire,” where 146 girls burned to death because the owners had locked the doors and the elevator was too small. The subsequent protests – choral lament “Bread and Roses” and “Oy Vey Kindenyu,” in which a mother (Stephanie Lynne Mason)n mourns her 16 year old daughter – fired the nascent union movement in New York.

Consolation comes from welcoming the Sabbath with candle lighting and family – ”Lekho Dodi,” a traditional song, and “Fraytyik Oyf Der Nakht” (Friday Night). From celebrating a peaceful world: “Zumer Bay Nakht Oyd Di Dekher” (Summer Nights on the Roof) and “Amerike Hurrah For Onkl Sem.” And entertainment -- the Yiddish Theatre (“Roumania, Roumania” and “In a Kleyn Shtibele”), radio and film, media the immigrants embraced and molded.

From video

The arc and songs are familiar. What makes this review stand out is the brevity in identifying later obstacles, the very compression speaking volumes. The explorations of the Depression (“Vi Nemt Men Parnuse,” How Do I Make a Living), the blatant discrimination in colleges and upscale hotels, and rumors of the Holocaust. The community has become a person, its experience in America a lifetime, and so the poignancy is not just historical but personal. “Amerike” is the story of every character on stage, who talks to us singly, in duets, in counterpoint or chorus. It is very moving when Sadie (Alexandra Frohlinger) sings “Am Yisruel Khay” (The Jewish People Live) because we feel it: the community has presented the fullness of life by embraced the joys of life, food, wine, relatives, laughter, song, disappointment, sorrow and a deep contentment and pride. It would not be a Yiddish revue without the laughter. The radio meteorologist tells us the weather is neither here nor there. So take a sweater just in case.

In 1984 when the musical premiered, the language was English, not the Mameh Loschen. Yiddish is the language that unified the millions of immigrants from hundreds of towns and village, some of whom had never traveled anywhere before. Yiddish theatre and newspapers, like Abraham Cahan’s “The Daily Forward,” formed them into a community and taught them how to thrive. The theatre brought them Shakespeare and entertainment. Uptown critics with no Yiddish were enthralled and the talent (like the Adlers) made its way to Broadway and Hollywood, reshaping as it went.

Thanks to technology and a healthy budget for the NYTF in its 103 consecutive season, “Amerike” can come to us in Yiddish with supertitles. The performers are among the best young talent: Glenn Seven Allen (“The Light in the Piazza” at Lincoln Center), Alexandra Frohlinger (“Soul Doctor”), Stephanie Lynne Mason (“Fiddler on the Roof”) and David Perlman (“Baby It’s You!) have played Broadway. Daniel Kahn, who fronts the band The Painted Bird, is a leader in the current Yiddish cultural revival. Director Bryna Wasserman has won Drama Desk nominations for her staging of NYTF’s “The Golden Bride” in 2016, “The Golden Land” in 2013, and “On Second Avenue” in 2005. The high-energy seven-piece klezmer band, not having to share the stage with the actors, closes the show with panache. NYTF co-produced “Indecent, ” inspired by “God of Vengeance” by Sholem Asch, at the Cort Theatre, which won two Tony awards.

As Zalmen Mlotek, Artistic Director of NYTF, observed, “The show is more than just a metaphor for the Jewish migratory experience; it is a metaphor for America as the land of opportunity and freedom.”


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