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Theatre in Review: The Golden Bride (National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene/Museum of Jewish Heritage)

Jillian Gottlieb and female company. Photo: Ben Moody.

Cheers to the good folks at the Folksbiene for disinterring this 1923 operetta, which proves to be charming in every respect. A hit in its day -- the program states that it was one of fourteen Yiddish productions available on the night that it opened -- The Golden Bride (Di Goldene Kale) remained a favorite until the late'40s, when New York's Yiddish theatre was in deep decline. The libretto and score have been rediscovered in pieces over the last few decades and assembled by the musicologist Michael Ochs; it proves to be well worth the effort.

A lot of the fun in The Golden Bride comes from how it combines the conventions of operetta and Yiddish theatre, a bit of Viennese froth given a strong, revivifying shot of seltzer. Act I of Frieda Freiman's book is set in a Russian shtetl, where Goldele, the title character, is about to inherit a pile, following the death, in America, of her long-lost father. The news spreads like wildfire, leading the locals to kvell over her good fortune. ("Who has the greatest possible power today? The dollar, oh, oh the dollar.") Abandoned at birth, Godele has been raised by Pinchas and Toybe; she is best friends with their daughter, Khanele, and in love with their son, Misha. The news of Goldele's good fortune is delivered by Benjamin, her uncle from America; his son, Jerome, an actor, is soon making eyes at Khanele.

Delightful as Goldele is -- especially as played by the lovely, silver-voiced Rachel Policar -- she makes one of those brainless decisions that afflict operetta heroines worldwide: Despite the fact that she loves the young and ardent Misha, who returns her feelings, she announces that the man who finds her mother will be rewarded with her hand in marriage. (To her credit, she spends much of the second act in repentance: "Better I'd been struck dumb at the time before I let those words out of my mouth.") This unleashes a small legion of smitten village men, each determined to track down the lady in question. Act II moves everyone to New York, where Goldele is living in penthouse luxury, Jerome and Khanele are stars of the stage, and Pinchas and Toybe struggle to make sense of the subway system. The suitors return -- all at once -- with more than one possible mother in tow, but you won't be shocked to hear that Godele is reunited with Misha and her absent parent -- at a masked ball, of course.

This ample serving of old-time operetta schmaltz is made extra-palatable because the directors, Bryna Wasserman and Motl Didner, treat it with great affection and the lightest of hands. They have also assembled a cast of musical theatre pros who know exactly when to kid this material and when to leave it alone, and who treat the score with the respect it deserves. Policar is a warm and winsome personality, her voice caressing such numbers as "My Godele," a lovely duet with Misha, played by the talented, big-voiced Cameron Johnson. Glenn Seven Allen and Jillian Gottlieb take care of the comedy as Jerome and Khanele, especially in Act II's "We are Actors," in which they explain that they never starve, thanks to the vast number of vegetables thrown at them. (Earlier, when Jerome is stunned to hear that it's a sin to kiss on the Sabbath, Khanele scolds, "A lot you know about Judaism! Even a goy knows more than you.") There are also lovely contributions from Bob Ader as Uncle Benjamin, Bruce Rebold and Lisa Fishman as the amusingly combative Pinchas and Toybe, and Adam B. Shapiro as Kalmen, a rabbi and matchmaker who takes to America with a little too much enthusiasm, as evidenced by his taste for loud plaid suits. The performance is in Yiddish, with English and Russian surtitles; it's remarkable how fluent the younger members of the cast sound to this (admittedly) non-Yiddish speaker.

The score is full of lively melodies -- days later, I'm still humming the title tune -- that easily assimilate a number of influences. Many of the songs -- music by Joseph Rumshinsky, lyrics by Louis Gilrod -- are in the Sigmund Romberg/Franz Lehar vein, and "The Masked Ball" has a Johann Strauss lilt to it. The comedy numbers have a pronounced vaudeville bounce, inflected with Jewish harmonies; one of them, "Over There," works in winking homages to George M. Cohan and "Auld Lang Syne." Fascinatingly, Misha has an Act II ballad, "A Greeting from the New Russia," in which he pays tribute to the changes wrought by the socialist revolution. ("I'll give you a greeting now/From a land that's being newly rebuilt./Where a new life is sown and taking shape/ A free and blooming world.") I guess that in 1923 such hopes were still riding high.

John Dinning's appealing, trellised set works better for the first act than the second, despite the addition of some posh furnishings after the intermission, but Yael Lubetzky's lighting makes everything look good, especially in the masked ball scene, in which she uses plenty of color and dark-light contrasts to create an aura of glamour. Izzy Fields' costumes provide simple peasant wear in Act I and some nifty bias-cut gowns cut to fit the flapper silhouette in Act II. (And Kalmen's American look is a sure laugh-getter.) John Emmett O'Brien's sound design is refreshingly natural.

At the performance I attended, the older members of the audience were entranced by The Golden Bride, but musical theatre fans should also make a beeline to the Museum of Jewish Heritage for this all-too-rare opportunity to check out a piece of the past in a first-class production. It's a funny thing: The death of the Yiddish theatre is forever being announced, but this season alone has given us the stunning New Yiddish Rep revival of Death of a Salesman and now The Golden Bride. Don't mourn the patient just yet. -- David Barbour

(10 December 2015)

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