by Marilyn Lester
A reimagining of a 33-year old revue about a hundred and some-year old story comes at a ripe political moment in history. At a time when ethnic cleansing is news, the world is in a migrant crisis, and Americans are almost daily being called upon to define who they are and what they stand for, Amerike — The Golden Land is here to remind us about our humanity. Ecclesiastes 1:4-11 tells us “there is nothing new under the sun” – probably true, but it’s essential to remember what stuff we’re made of and how the repetition of history can help us in that endeavor.
Amerike — The Golden Land (by Zalmen Mlotek and Moishe Rosenfeld) is the story of mass Jewish immigration, beginning in the 1880s until post World War Two. As a presentation of the 103-year-old National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, the story is told in authentic American immigrant Yiddish with English and Russian supertitles. A uniformly superb cast of 12 actors handles the demands of language, song and acting with terrific energy – briskly paced and staged by director Bryna Wasserman. The story is told in historical segments, with very little text, taking 40 numbers of the Yiddish songbook to move the action smartly along. The upshot is somewhat like a History Chanel documentary, somewhat like a Tenement Museum presentation and somewhat like a vaudeville. But the mixed bag is ultimately full-bodied entertainment, with a wide spectrum of pathos, dramatic substance and comedy.
“The Arrival” tugs at heartstrings with the punishing process of Ellis Island. “Lozt Arayn” (Let Them In), sung by the abundantly talented Glenn Seven Allen, David Perlman, Daniel Kahn, Alexandra Frohlinger, Jessica Rose Futran, Stephanie Lynne Mason and the ensemble, is especially affecting. Each of the principals bring a strong, personal well-honed talent to the stage. They are committed, and their dedication to the work shines through. When the action moves to new life on the Lower East Side, their struggle is palpable. Life doesn’t prove easy. The balloon is burst – the streets of Amerike are not paved with gold (“Vatch Your Step”). Equally as heart-rending is the segment in “Work” that dramatizes the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, sung in several segments, including “Ballad of the Triangle Fire.” As time marches on, life in general is less fraught, but the short “The Depression” segment does feature Glenn Seven Allen and a soul-stinging “Brother Can You Spare a Dime.”
For humor, there’s the founding of radio station WEVD in “Film and Radio” with a weatherman whose forecast is the obvious: “it was cloudy this morning when I came in. Is it raining out now? I dunno… go look out the window.” A humorous thread involving name changes to more Anglicized versions than the Jewish originals runs throughout – a shtick especially funny when the newly renamed Louis B, Mayer and Sam Goldwyn decide to go into the infant film business. The early Yiddish Theater’s interpretations of Shakespeare feature a hilarious trio of kvetching witches in the Scottish play. There are bright moments too. “Citizenship” is a love letter to America. The show’s ending segment, “Rebirth,” features the final number, the heart-swelling “Give Me Your Tired Your Poor,” Emma Lazarus’s words inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, set to music by Irving Berlin.
But is Amerike — The Golden Land relevant? What does the story of the Jews have to do with the rest of us? The answer is: everything. Sure, the revue is entertaining, but beyond that it speaks to the totality of the American experience. No matter how far back, America is a nation of immigrants – people who had the courage to brave the unknown and build new lives even when that meant struggle and persistence, grit and gumption. Every new wave of immigrants adds to the mix of what defines this melting pot nation. The Jews of Amerike — The Golden Land stand for all of us.
In addition to the six principal actors of the company, the ensemble of Dani Marcus, Christopher Tefft, Maya Jacobson, Alexander Kosmowski, Isabel Nesti, Raquel Nobile, Grant Richards and Bobby Underwood beautifully sang, and moved artfully to staging by Merete Muenter. Yiddish diction coach is Motl Didner. Extraordinary period costumes were designed by Izzy Fields. Sets and projections evoking the landscape of old New York were designed by Jason Lee Courson. Sound design was by Patrick Calhoun and lighting by Yael Lubetzky. Production stage manager is Eileen F. Haggerty.
Music director and piano and melodica player, Zalmen Mlotek, led a top-notch klezmer band, with outstanding players, “Zisl” Slepovitch on reeds, Jordan Hirsch on trumpet, Katsumi Ferguson on violin, Dmitry Ishenko on bass, Daniel Linden on trombone and Sean Perham on percussion. Andrew Wheeler is the associate music director.
Photos: Art Broll
Amerike – The Golden Land runs through August 20, 2017 Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place, New York https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/970203 or call OvationTix at 866-811-4111