Tuesday, July 11, 2017

42 (2017-2018): Review: AMERIKE--THE GOLDEN LAND (seen July 10, 2017)

"Let Them In"

Last summer it was the glorious The Golden Bride, this year it’s Amerike—The Golden Land. With these shining examples, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene has struck a rich lode of affecting musical ore expressing the experience of Jewish immigrants to our glittering if somewhat tarnished nation.
Isabelle Nesti, Bobby Underwood, Alexandra Frohlinger, Grant Richards, Dani Marcus. Photo: Victor Nechay.

Daniel Kahn, Alexandra Frohlinger, Glenn Seven Allen. Photo: Victor Nechay.
The show began in 1982 and continued to evolve over the years, with additional productions. The most recent was at the Baruch Performing Arts Center in 2012, about which I wrote in the early days of this blog  when I had little time for more than a cursory notice:

Let me make this simple. THE GOLDEN LAND, a Yiddish-English musical produced by the Jewish National Theatre—Folksbiene, is wonderful. That’s W-O-N-D-E-R-F-U-L. To paraphrase one of its songs, "Oy, oy, I liked it." . . . I hope you shlep your tuchus down to Baruch and kvell at this delightful assortment of songs that capture the Jewish immigrant experience. . . . You don’t have to be Jewish to like THE GOLDEN LAND. 

The revival of this heartfelt tribute to Jewish immigration’s place in American history couldn’t come at a better time nor be presented at a more appropriate place, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, in full view of both Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

Dani Marcus, David Perlman, Stephanie Lynne Mason. Photo: Victor Nechay.
Unlike The Golden Bride, a revival of a 1923 Yiddish musical, Amerike is a revue, stringing together three dozen disparate but remarkably expressive Yiddish songs. There are also a couple in English, like the still powerful “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” by “Yip” Harburg and Jay Gorney, or Irving Berlin’s “Give Me Your Tired Your Poor,” using Emma Lazarus’s famous words. 
David Perlman, Daniel Kahn. Photo: Victor Nechay.
Connecting them is a slight narrative, by Moishe Rosenfeld and Zalmen Mlotek, about Eastern European immigrants coming to America at the turn of the 20th century, starving, striving, and struggling to breathe free as they gradually assimilate into mainstream society. The immigrant experience itself, pertinent as it is, eventually merges into what seems a greatest hits list of Jewish-American issues over the first half of the 20th century.
Glenn Seven Allen, Dani Marcus. Photo: Victor Nechay.
Laughs pepper the plot but, while it gets the evening’s biggest response, the show could do without that groan-worthy old chestnut about the refugee at Ellis Island using the Yiddish expression for “I can’t remember” and, because of what it sounds like, being given the name Sean Ferguson. I saw it coming minutes before it arrived. Oy gevalt!
Dani Marcus, Glenn Seven Allen, and company. Photo: Victor Nechay.
Amerike takes us through the years, as fashions change, from the Ellis Island days through those of the tenement dwellers and pushcart peddlers, the Triangle Fire, the citizenship process, World War I recruitment, the Yiddish theatre, unionism, WEVD radio (commercials and all), the Depression, and the immediate postwar world of displaced persons (d.p.’s as we used to call them). Some material, while given a Jewish slant, is not specifically ethnic—like the Depression—while the Holocaust is treated in only a perfunctory way.
Company of Amerike--The Golden Land. Photo: Victor Nechay.
The show’s surprises lie not in its historical facts but in how appealing are its less well-known songs, like Boris Thomashevsky and Joseph Rumshinsky’s “Uptown, Downtown” or Rumshinsky and Louis Gilrod’s “Fifty-Fifty.”
Alexandra Frohlinger, David Perlman, Daniel Kahn, Stepanie Lynne Mason. Photo: Victor Nechay.
Seven gifted performers play 10 named roles backed by a chorus of six but so many years pass, so many costumes are worn, and so little character evolution occurs that following any particular character’s arc becomes insignificant, if not impossible. Instead, you’re best off simply giving yourself over to the panoply of musical delights, many of which will be familiar only to klezmer aficionados.
Company of Amerike--The Golden Land. Photo: Victor Nechay.
Others, like Aaron Lebedeff’s tongue-twisting “Roumania, Roumania” or Jacob Jacobs and Alexander Olshanetsky’s melodically moving “Mayn Sthtetle Belz,” will be immediately recognizable to most Jews of a certain age—from the nonobservant to the orthodox—who grew up when bar mitzvah entertainers thought hip hop was a sidewalk game.
Isabelle Nesti, Dani Marcus, Maya Jacobson, Raquel Nobile. Amerike--The Golden Land. Photo: Victor Nechay.
There’s schmaltz, of course; no one sings “My Yiddishe Momme” but a bereaved momme does sing of her deceased, teenage daughter. Still, the overall tone is upbeat and positive, with swelling voices, vaudeville-style choreography, and cheerful comedy. It’s inescapable that the 90-minute, intermissionless show, which offers a brief klezmer concert during the curtain calls, will get a standing o.
Alexander Kosmowski, Isabel Nesti, Alexandra Frohlinger, Daniel Kah, David Perlman, Stephanie Lynne Mason, Bobby Underwood, Grant Richards, Raquel Nobile. Photo: Victor Nechay.
And, for those whose Yiddish is restricted to the choicer items in Leo Rosten’s hilarious The Joys of Yiddish, you’ll appreciate the English (and Russian, if you’re so inclined) surtitles; if you’re close to the stage, though, you may not appreciate the crick in your neck you’ll get from reading them. A suggestion: place them on the sides of the stage as well.
David Perlman, Daniel Kahn, Glenn Seven Allen, Bobby Underwood, Alexander Kosmowsky.  Photo: Victor Nechay. 
Nostalgic and sentimental as it can be, Amerike’s view of the aspiring masses who surged here in the late 19th and early 20th century is a potent plea for our nation to open, not close, our borders to asylum seekers fleeing their hellish existence in oppressive, war-torn countries. 

Not that the Jewish immigrants coming here always found welcoming arms—we see  how even their fellow Jews exploited them as landlords and bosses—but, over time, they assimilated and became an integral, essential part of what made and continues to make America great. When a man in a crowd scene says Holocaust refugees seeking entry should be rejected on the grounds of “America first,” a chill ran down my spine. America first does not mean America great.
Front: Raquel Nobile, Maya Jacobson, Alexandera Frohlinger, Dani Marcus, Stephanie Lynne Mason, Isabel Nesti. Back row: David Perlman, Daniel Kahn, Grant Richards, Glenn Seven Allen, Alexander Osmowski, Bobby Underwood.. Photo: Victor Nechay.
Kudos to Bryna Wasserman for her marvelous staging, Zalmen Mlotek for his musical direction, and Merete Muenter for her “movement” (what’s wrong with “choreography”?). Also contributing mightily are Jason Le Courson’s set, using sliding panels to vary the visual effect; Izzy Fields’s multitude of period-evoking costumes; Courson's video projections, including old-time New York street scenes; Yael Lubetzky's versatile lighting; and Patrick Calhoun’s expert sound design.
Alexandra Frohlinger. Photo: Victor Nechay.

Glenn Seven Allen, Daniel Kahn, David Perlman. Photo: Victor Nechay.
And mazel tov to the entire cast, especially the leads, several of whom appeared in last year’s The Golden Bride: Glenn Seven Allen, Alexandra Frohlinger, Jessica Rose Futran, Daniel Kahn, Dani Marcus, Stephanie Lynne Mason, and David Perlman. I’m told that only Kahn, who offers an outstanding “Roumania, Roumania,” is truly fluent in Yiddish, while, of the principals, half have performed in Yiddish and half are completely new to it. An amazing job.
Company of Amerike--The Golden Land. Photo: Victor Nechay.
A major reason for their success is Yiddish diction coach Motl Didner, whose pre-show, 15-minute, introductory primer on the language I urge you to visit. Didner’s expressive teaching even got me to remember some of my own long lost Yiddish words. My fluent, Brooklyn-born mother, would have kvelled.
Company of Amerike--The Golden Land. Photo: Victor Nechay.
Be you Galitzianer, Litvak, Poylish, or any variety of goy, you’ll be doing yourself a mitzvah by visiting Amerike—The Golden Land or, as they used to say on Hester Street, the goldeneh medina.


Museum of Jewish Heritage
36 Battery Place, NYC
Through August 6