Theatre in Review: Amerike: The Golden Land (National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene)
This brisk, funny, and touching musical revue, which just extended its run at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, takes audiences through the whirlwind of the American Jewish immigrant experience, from the turn of the last century to the end of World War II. Performed in Yiddish, with English surtitles, the judiciously chosen songs powerfully evoke the tumultuous experiences of four very crowded decades, recalling how tens of thousands of Jews, fleeing the shtetls and ghettos of Eastern Europe in search of something better, planted a vibrant new culture in their dream city of New York -- where, as it happened, the streets were not paved with gold. Musical theatre fans who fear that this material has been Ragtimed out should think again: One of the most familiar of American tales is given new life in this retelling. This is also a golden opportunity to sample the work of the Yiddish theatre's most prominent songwriters, not least the composer Joseph Rumshinsky, whose delightful musical The Golden Bride provided National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene with a critical and popular hit over the last two seasons.
Moishe Rosenfeld and Zalmen Mlotek, who assembled this entertainment, combine the works of various songwriters into discrete sequences that take half a dozen immigrant figures through the many steps -- both joyful and wrenching -- of becoming Jewish Americans. These are not fully developed characters, just a series of types that are given heft by the strong personalities portraying them. The most amusing in the crowd is the hapless Izzie Jacobson (David Perlman), who, armed with little to no English, has his name translated as "Sean Ferguson" by an inattentive immigration officer; later, he turns up, newly prosperous and renamed C. D. Allen, the initials standing for "corner" and "Delancey."
Indeed, each of the six featured performers get his or her moment to shine. After an Ellis Island sequence that powerfully contrasts songs of yearning with the ugly realities of racial quotas, turnbacks, and being probed by nurses for TB and other infections, everyone takes part in the ebullient, high-stepping "Watch Your Step" -- music by Rumshinsky, lyrics by the great Yiddish star Boris Thomashefsky -- that buoyantly depicts the rough and tumble of life on the Lower East Side. (As someone notes, "America is the land of hurry up,") This is followed, poignantly, by a pair of numbers, "A Peddler's Letter" and "A Letter to Mother," that drive home the longing for a lost world felt by even those besotted with their exciting new city. And there is much to lament: "Ballad of the Triangle Fire," performed with devastating restraint by Alexandra Frohlinger and Stephanie Lynne Mason, is a heartbreaking account of the sweatshop disaster that resulted in the deaths of nearly 150 people, most of them young women -- and which led to significant labor reform.
With success comes assimilation: "Uptown Downtown," another Thomashefsky-Rumshinsky gem (featuring Dani Marcus along with Mason and Perlman), satirically observes the pretensions of a matron who has moved to the greener pastures of the Bronx. "Steam Steam Steam," a rollicking routine from the Yiddish theatre, is performed with manic energy by Daniel Kahn and Perlman. It's probably no surprise that New York had its own Yiddish-language radio station, WEVD; a sequence devoted to it earns the night's biggest laughs with a weather report that begins with "It's neither here nor there; it could be worse," and ends with the admonition to take a sweater, and maybe an umbrella, too. (A commercial for Manischewitz earned a sizable ripple of nostalgic laughter from the audience at the performance I attended.)
As times get harder, the songs become more pointed. Easily the most powerful set piece of the evening yokes the Yiddish song "How Can I Make a Living," delivered by a female streetwalker (Mason), to "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?," E. Y. Harburg's dark masterpiece, given shattering impact by Glenn Seven Allen as a forgotten man. Equally powerful is the old favorite "Roumania, Roumania," given a ringing rendition by Kahn as war clouds gather over Europe. And, the war over, the evening closes with "Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor," Emma Lazarus' poem set to the music of Irving Berlin, from his musical Miss Liberty. It's only too appropriate that the final contribution comes from a songwriter who may have been the greatest immigrant success story of all.
Under the direction of Bryna Wasserman, there isn't a wasted minute; the action is paced by Merete Muenter's movement sequences and Mlotek's always-lively musical direction. Jason Lee Courson's set frames the action in an ironwork proscenium, with four brick-and-iron sliders shifting positions for each new sequence; the sliders also serve as surfaces for Courson's projections, which include some priceless footage of the Lower East Side in its immigrant heyday. Izzy Fields' costumes plausibly chart the shifting styles of several decades. Yael Lubetzky's lighting effectively carves out the actors from the stage, creating a different look for each sequence. Patrick Calhoun's sound design could drop a few decibels at times, but everything -- voices and instruments -- is crystal clear.
Amerike: The Golden Land doesn't carry the same thrill of discovery as The Golden Bride, as it has been presented by the company several times since its 1982 debut. But neither is it a warhorse; at this moment, especially, its essentially upbeat account of immigrants and what they contribute to American culture couldn't be more relevant. This, and its abundance of musical riches, make it a more-than-welcome visitor during these fraught American times. -- David Barbour