Can you believe I’m begging you to attend a show whose dialogue and songs are ALL in Yiddish?
Those who only speak Russian should get on board, too. Supertitles in their language nestle above those in English.
Yes, THE GOLDEN BRIDE offers something for almost everyone: musical comedy tonight.
Alas, National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s DI GOLDENE KALE, if you will, finishes its limited engagement on January 3. So attention must be paid very quickly.
The show will be of great interest to those who’ve always wondered what those Yiddish-language shows on Second Avenue were like in the early years of the 20th century. Here in the 21st, this production serves as our time-machine.
The greatest achievement of co-directors Bryna Wasserman and Motl Didner can be summed up in a very famous three-word phrase that’s often violated: Trust the material.
They’ve been able to convince their excellent cast to exhibit respect for what librettist Frieda Freiman, composer Joseph Rumshinsky and lyricist Louis Gilrod created 92 years ago. Wasserman and Didner know that there’s no statute of limitations on playing a piece the way it was originally intended.
They’re well-aware that this musical, first produced in 1923, spoke to people and concerns of a different era. Rather than mock THE GOLDEN BRIDE, they let us see what was then on the minds of both Yiddish theater creators and audiences.
So the first act takes place in a shetl in Russia, where the villagers first sing “Everybody rejoice!” The reason? “Good friends from America will help us!” They believe that a visitor from The States must automatically be a millionaire who’ll freely dispense dollar bills.
Soon they’ll find that one of their own is suddenly wealthy: Goldele (Rachel Policar), thanks to an unexpected inheritance from her just-deceased father. Misha (Cameron Johnson), her long-time beau, is worried that she’ll now dump him in favor someone (supposedly) better. And indeed, Misha has cause for anxiety, for once word gets out that Goldele is flush, she becomes the village’s most sought-after woman.
Goldele seizes the opportunity to make a dream come true. She says she’ll marry the first man who can find the long-lost mother that she never knew. And so, the earnest Misha and three avaricious suitors go on their quest.
The theatergoers at last Wednesday’s matinee giggled when Suitor Number One entered and tried to palm off a clear impostor as Goldele’s mother. Audience members then laughed outright as soon as the doorbell rang, for they knew that Suitor Number Two was about to enter with his impostor. So when the bell rang a third time, they roared, proud of themselves for being ahead of the authors.
Ah, but don’t underestimate Frieman, Rumshinsky and Gilrod. The way Suitor Number Three handled the situation was a delicious surprise. It gave the theatergoers a laugh that was much bigger than the one they expected to give.
Back in 1923, tradition-bound audiences must have loved the idea of a young girl wanting her mother in her life even more than a husband. And speaking of tradition, THE GOLDEN BRIDE allows us to have even more respect for FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. We see that the creators of that 1964 masterpiece did their homework, for here too is a Sabbath Prayer and a parent’s assumption that he has the right and privilege to choose his daughter’s mate.
Even after Act Two moves to America, we still have a matchmaker – albeit a male one (Adam B. Shapiro) – who offers young women would-be husbands that are even worse than the ones that FIDDLER lyricist Sheldon Harnick envisioned. “One of his legs is shorter than the other,” admits the matchmaker before supposedly solving the problem: “But the other one is longer.”
Twenties audiences, be they just-off-the-boat greenhorns or new citizens who’d been here a few years, undoubtedly howled when the matchmaker entered in a suit that was even louder than his strident voice. They either had made this mistake themselves or knew someone who did, all in the cause of “being a new American.”
Secondary lovers, more comic in nature, are here, too, thanks to Khanele (Jillian Gottlieb) and Jerome, the American (Glenn Seven Allen). Why does she love him? We learn in a rollicking song that “he kisses and squeezes without end.” Lyricists were just starting to experiment with “naughty” lyrics, even as far down as Second Avenue.
Everybody wants to get into show business, and so do Khanele and Jerome. Thus we get a play-within-a-play that shows how dramas back them were riotously exaggerated and far removed from real life. Performance style was very much out there in those days, too, so after Cameron Johnson does splendidly with one of Misha’s songs, he basks in the applause and looks out at the audience with a “Wasn’t I wonderful?” look. He’s not being immodest or self-aggrandizing; Second Avenue actors did drop their characters during applause, would react to it as themselves and let the audience know they appreciated it (and agreed with it). It’s more authenticism.
Merete Muenter’s choreography adheres to the vintage template of having an ensemble parade more than actually dance. There is, however, a hot-stuff homage during one production number. We can just imagine how excited the more eagle-eyed members of the 1923 audience were when they caught a glimpse of the chorus girls’ thighs when the ladies semi-immodestly swished their skirts high. The thrill is gone for 2015 attendees, but we appreciate Muenter’s diligence in recreating the move.
“Suspension of disbelief” was almost a cardinal rule back then, so we shouldn’t be surprised that at a masked ball no one can recognize anyone while we have no problem discerning who’s who. The ball also provides an opportunity for those who come to the theater to see nice costumes. Designer Izzy Fields does not disappoint.
To be sure, the ball is a divertissement that also reminds us how far musical theater had to go in becoming an integrated entertainment. And what would a ‘20s musical be without a female impersonator? In this case, the woman “pictured” is prima ballerina Anna Pavlova (Shapiro again). The original audiences for THE GOLDEN BRIDE must have loved seeing such high-brow entertainment mocked, partly because they couldn’t afford to see the real thing; this burlesque implied that they really weren’t missing anything.
A different example of topicality occurs when Misha most sincerely sings “A Greeting from the New Russia.” The authors couldn’t see into the future, so they were well within their rights to assume that the Russian Revolution was a substantial step in the right direction. Now THAT’s something about THE GOLDEN BRIDE that’s genuinely dated.
There is circumstantial musical evidence Rumshinsky had already sauntered uptown where he’d attended one of Jerome Kern’s Princess Theatre musicals; his title song fits perfectly with Kern’s era and style. Operetta trills crop up in regular interludes, too, but most of the score sounds up-to-date 1923. Bless libretto and music editor Michael Ochs for unearthing and reconstructing the materials so we can now revel in them. Smart, too, of the production to employ Zalmen Mlotek as conductor, for no one today understands this form, era and music better than he.
There’s one very telling aspect of the supertitles. The word “God” is never printed in its entirety, for to use The Deity’s name in such a secular arena as theater was thought to be arrogant or even blasphemous. So “G-d” is used instead.
I’ll go out on a limb and risk damnation: God, is THE GOLDEN BRIDE a good show!