If the idea of the National Yiddish Theatre, now in its 98th season, makes you think of incomprehensible museum-piece entertainment, think again. The Golden Land, playing at the Baruch Performing Arts Center through Dec. 2 after an opening delay caused by Hurricane Sandy, is a sparkling Broadway-style production of a folksy but highly polished musical, birthed 30 years ago, and with roots extending much further back, but with plenty to entertain and enlighten modern audiences.
The Golden Land is, put simply, the story of the Jewish immigrant experience in America. Created by Zalmen Mlotek and Moishe Rosenfeld and directed by Bryna Wasserman, the show stitches together a broad range of period songs into a more-or-less contiguous narrative that follows a handful of Jews from the time of pogrom-era immigration until World War II and the Holocaust, and the foundation of Israel. (In a surface sense it feels a little like a sequel to Fiddler on the Roof.) With a fabulous cast and a superb band, the production sizzles with energy and glows with warm feeling. If, as necessitated by the concept, it touches only lightly on some aspects of the history, with its nonstop pace and cornucopia of musical and cultural selections it never ceases to entertain.
Wasserman’s new scenic design and staging freshen up the book and score from the 1985 Off-Broadway production. Broadway veterans Bob Ader (comically brilliant) and the golden-voiced Sandy Rosenberg ground the outstanding cast of six. But the most exceptional singer is Cooper Grodin (who in the program thanks “all the Grojinsky’s [sp] who came over from Minsk long ago”).
Early on, as the immigrant Yosi, who becomes Joe, Grodin commands the stage singing “Lozt Arayn (Let Them In)”; later he does a priceless pseudo-Shakespearean turn during a segment that evokes the real Yiddish theater of old; and further on he spins down into a soft, sentimental duet with Surkhe-later-Sadie (the charming Daniella Rabbani) in “A Khulem (A Dream),” wherein the couple affirms their optimism for the future in spite of the hard times of the Great Depression. Grodin also tears down the house belting out the great Yiddish theater star Aaron Lebedeff’s famous “Rumania, Rumania” in a brilliantly staged and sung production number.
Deanna Dys’s choreography shines in numbers like “Gebentsht iz Amerike (Blessed is America)” as, early in Act II, the immigrants celebrate their naturalization as Americans. World War I, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the labor movement, and the Jewish immigrant influence on early Hollywood are among the other themes feted, if not deeply explored.
Despite being a tour through history, The Golden Land resonates in the 21st century. At a time when the Republican Party just lost an election in part because of insensitivity to immigrants, it’s good to be reminded of how difficult it was for emigrants to get the necessary papers to get through Ellis Island 100-plus years ago, not to mention the tragedy of U.S. authorities turning away European Jews attempting to flee the Holocaust. And the lyrics of “Fifty-Fifty” (translated from Louis Gilrod’s original) can’t help but remind us of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the current congressional standoff over tax rates for the wealthy: “The Astors and the Vanderbilts will have to learn to share.”
Don’t be thrown by the Yiddish song titles; this is one of Folksbiene’s mostly-English productions, and even during the Yiddish bits it’s easy to understand what’s going on. As Wasserman says, it’s “a story of hope, disillusionment, and then hope again.” As for the songs, co-creator Mlotek calls them “living documents of the history of Jewish life in America.” The impressive achievement here is not so much that we are treated to hearing these great old songs in a modern setting and sung mostly in English, but that the brains behind the scenes have found a way to stitch them together so nearly seamlessly, resulting in a beautiful show that adults, children, Jews and non-Jews can all enjoy.