The villagers in a Russian shtetl toast “To Life” in “The Golden Bride,” too, but they’re singing it operetta style in Yiddish, with English and Russian super titles, in a musical that predates “Fiddler on the Roof” by 41 years. Both Fiddler and Golden Bride were big hits in their day, but Fiddler is still everywhere, while Golden Bride was last staged in New York in 1948, as once-popular Yiddish theater largely disappeared from city stages. Now, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene in its 101st season has meticulously reconstructed the silly script and the sumptuous score with a sublime 14-piece orchestra and a superb 20-member cast, for a top ticket price only one-quarter that of the Broadway Fiddler’s. And they even have a performance on Christmas Day.
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At the Museum of Jewish Heritage through January 3, “The Golden Bride” (“Di Goldene Kale”) is almost as much an anthropological and historical study of early 20th century Jewish immigrant views and values as it is a lovely entertainment. “A Greeting From the New Russia,” for example, is a paean to the new (Soviet) Russia – written, let’s remember, in 1923.
That song, like many of the 16 in the show, has zero to do with the central plot, which is just as well. Goldele (portrayed by Rachel Policar), who has been raised in a Russian shtetl by an innkeeper couple (Bruce Rebold and Lisa Fishman), discovers that her father in America has died and left her a large inheritance. “Long live my dead father,” Goldele gushes. Suddenly, an army of suitors woo her to be their bride. Misha (Cameron Johnson) has loved her since childhood, and she him, but she takes advantage of her leverage to decree (as if in fairy tale) that she will marry any man who finds her long-lost mother.
Act II takes place in America, to which she has immigrated with many of her landsman. Truth be told, the poor shtetl and her New York mansion don’t look all that different in the scenic design by John Dinning – both adorned with tasteful trellises – although costume designer Izzy Fields has some fun. The matchmaker/wheeler-dealer Kalmen (a comic Adam B. Shapiro with a soaring voice) wears a candy-striped suit while he sings “We’re All Girls,” and, later, a pure white tutu. (The sets and costumes are reportedly an attempt at reconstructing what audiences actually saw when the show premiered at Kessler’s Second Avenue Theater, which is now Village East Cinema.)
Will Misha find Goldele’s mother, and become Goldele’s husband as he was always meant to be? This is not Brecht or Beckett. It’s Yiddish theater – no surprises in the story.
What may surprise people is how delightful it all is: the Yiddish humor, the vaudeville-like gags, the rich mix of music – klezmer, waltz, opera, Russian ballads, comic numbers – the cast’s easy mastery of a foreign language. Cameron Johnson is a blond Irish-Canadian whose Yiddish is nevertheless letter-perfect, and his singing swoon-worthy. His duets with Rachel Policar are a highlight of the show. There are other highlights. In a subplot, Khanele (Jillian Gottlieb), Misha’s sister, is romanced by Jerome (Glenn Seven Allen.) Both characters portray struggling actors – struggling but not starving: In the song “We Are Actors,” they explain how they survive: They give bad performances so that the audience pummels them with onions and tomatoes – and thus they eat.
The Golden Bride offers food for thought and enjoyment, without the bad performances.
The Golden Bride” runs through Jan. 3 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place, Manhattan
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.