Near the end of this musical revue surveying 50 years in song of Jewish immigration to New York, one of the talented performers, Daniel Kahn, delivers an astounding rendition of “Roumania, Roumania,” a popular song written and recorded in 1941 by Aaron Lebedeff, a huge star of New York’s Yiddish Theater. In Kahn’s hands, the song is not just a lively, tuneful exercise in nostalgia for the old country; it’s somehow deeply powerful. Could that be in part because, just before the song, one of the characters announces that there was a pogrom in Yas, Roumania, in which hundreds of Jews had been shot?
Kahn is in a cast of some dozen golden-voiced performers in “Amerike: The Golden Land.” They sing more than 40 beautiful Yiddish songs, backed by a klezmer-inflected eight-piece band,wonderfully orchestrated. The songs, and brief scenes between them, are grouped in 11 segments organized more or less chronologically, from “Arrival” (in the 1890s) to “Rebirth” (after the Holocaust, in the 1940s.)
With its revival of “Amerike,” the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene in its 103rd season is clearly trying for the Triple Crown — after its first ever Broadway producing credit for the groundbreaking “Indecent,” and its hit revival/restoration of the charming 1923 Yiddish-language operetta, “The Golden Bride.” There are indeed other stirring moments like Daniel Kahn’s “Roumania, Roumania” in “Amerike.” But one longs for more of them. The show doesn’t quite reach the heights of Folksbiene’s recent productions, which would admittedly be a tall order.
Click on any photograph by Victor Neshay to see it enlarged.
A stumbling block is the surface familiarity of some of the subject matter, or what one can more bluntly call the schmaltz factor. How can a New York audience view as totally fresh any staging that involves huddled masses arriving at Ellis Island carrying broken down suitcases and exclaiming “Gold in the streets!” – even if it is in Yiddish? (With English and Russian sur-titles.) It doesn’t help that we don’t really get to know any specific characters, since, although there are a few recurring figures, “Amerike” is less a work of traditional musical theater than the stage equivalent of a concept album.
It is important to point out that the creative team, who first put the show together in 1982, works hard to unearth period songs intelligently and present them authentically. There is also much loveliness in the production, including the vivid costumes, lighting and set design, and Merete Muenter’s buoyant choreography, all of which makes the most of the small stage at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. For the multilinguists in the audience, or those who are especially attentive, there are some clever moments even within the most clichéd scenarios. An official on Ellis Island asks Izzie in English what his name is. Izzie has been repeating his new English name in order to remember it, but says to the next person in line “I forgot already” – but he says it in Yiddish: “Shoyn Fargesn.”
“Sean Ferguson,” the official repeats. “Sign here, Mr. Ferguson.”
There are more accessible highlights. In the spirited and sardonic number, “Vatch Your Step,” the cast sings the 1912 melody (“Vatch your step…Amerike, a land of hurry up”) alternating with shtick re-enacting the various ways that the “greenhorns” were cheated and exploited. One of the few spoken scenes features a hilarious routine by the weatherman at WEVD, New York’s Yiddish language radio station in the 1930’s and 40’s (Another radio routine is literally about schmaltz, but it’s in a recipe that uses the word in its original meaning, chicken fat.) There is a Yiddish Theater version of the witches brew scene in Macbeth that I considered way too short. A vaudeville-like 1930 ditty, Steam Steam Steam presents a song-and-dance routine by two men initially complaining about the landlord, but naughtily segueing into an exercise in mild double-entendre.
“Amerike” ends with the whole cast singing Emma Lazarus’s famous 1883 poem “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor’ that Irving Berlin set to music in 1958. They sing in English, with the Yiddish this time projected on the curtain and backdrop – as well as Spanish, Chinese, French, Russian and several languages I didn’t recognize. Was this familiar; was it schmaltz? It would be hard to say no, but it was also easy to be moved by it.
Folksbiene and the Museum of Jewish Heritage are doing more than just this finale to connect the experience of Jewish immigration with the immigrants of today. Next Monday and Tuesday, they are holding an Immigrant Arts Summit, which includes a free concert in nearby Robert F. Wagner Park.
Amerike: The Golden Land
Edmund J Safra Hall at The Museum of Jewish Heritage
Conceived and written by Zalmen Mlotek and Moishe Rosenfeld,
Directed by Bryna Wasserman
Set design by Jason Courson, lighting design by Yael Lubetzky, costume design by Izzy Fields, sound design by Patrick Calhoun, choreography by Merete Muenter
Cast: Glenn Seven Allen, Alexandra Frohlinger, Jessica Rose Futran, Daniel Kahn, Dani Marcus, Stephanie Lynne Mason, David Perlman, Christopher Tefft with Maya Jacobson, Alexander Kosmowksi, Isabel Nesti, Raquel Nobile, Grant Richards, Bobby Underwood
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Tickets $35 – $60
Amerike: The Golden Land is scheduled to run through August 6, 2017.
Update: Amerike has been extended to August 20, 2017.