The venerable National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF), now a century old, is staging a smashing revival of a great long-lost operetta from the legendary Second Avenue Theatre. The Golden Bride (Di Goldene Kale) debuted in 1923 and graced New York City stages until 1948, but hadn’t been seen since. It took years of research and sleuthing to gather the music, libretto, and dialogue to reconstruct the show.
NYTF’s new production at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, on stage through January 3, 2016, is performed in Yiddish, with English and Russian supertitles. This aspirational-fantasy story of Russian shtetl Jews emigrating to America is a fascinating period piece of great historical and cultural interest, as well as a robustly acted and brilliantly sung spectacle of theatrical joy, simultaneously humble and elegant, goofy and heartfelt.
Joseph Rumshinsky’s music and Louis Gilrod’s lyrics smoothly agglomerate a variety of influences, from vaudeville and early American musical theater, to witty Gilbert and Sullivan-style light opera, to Jewish folk music and even liturgy. The Golden Bride and its ilk were written to help make homesick recent Jewish immigrants struggling with a new language and culture feel better about their new land. It’s easy to trace the creators’ clever pursuit of this goal through the show’s story, structure, and playfulness with languages and accents.
The shtetl residents of Act I are fed pictures of America as a fantastical land of endless bounty and riches. Unlike the reality of tenement hardship most emigrants encountered, the USA of The Golden Bride fulfills that promise. Uncle Benjamin (Bob Ader), a rich American who lives in a mansion with servants and tennis courts, has come to the shtetl with his charming but dissolute son Jerome (Glenn Seven Allen, a fine elastic song-and-dance man) to fetch his niece Goldele, played by Rachel Policar (and where has her stunning silvery voice been all my life?), to a new life across the ocean. Raised since the age of four by humble innkeeper Pinchas (Bruce Rebold) and his wife Toybe (Lisa Fishman), Goldele has suddenly inherited a fortune from her absent father, and that, it seems, has made her worth her wealthy uncle’s attention.
Alas, the move will part our heroine from her childhood sweetheart Misha (a golden-voiced Cameron Johnson), Pinchas and Toybe’s son, just returned from college with a noble heart but few prospects. And the newly windfallen Goldele has other suitors to contend with, a comic triumvirate of townsfolk. Echoing ancient quest fables, she sends them all, including Misha, packing – on a mission to find her long-lost mother, who left her with the innkeeper all those years ago for unknown reasons. Whoever succeeds will win the Golden Bride.
Got it? There’s more: Misha’s sister Khanele (played to the comically golden max by Jillian Gottleib) and Benjamin’s son Jerome have fallen for one another. But can this match sit well with Benjamin?
Plot complications aside, the story is more or less a romantic farce with Shakespearean echoes. But it’s the artfulness of the whole production that makes it such a winner, with bang-up musical numbers connected by dialogue by librettist Frieda Freiman, whose oeuvre, we are told in the notes, was originally credited to her husband. So it goes. (Well, so it went.)
Merete Muenter’s bubbly choreography and Izzy Fields’s great-looking period costumes get star turns in a lengthy Masked Ball scene. You thought a show like this could do without a masked ball? What a shanda that would be. This is part opera, after all. Again with Shakespearean overtones, the disguises allow Misha to make a secret return – and they provide an opportunity for cross-dressing, too. Of course.
The ball also gives the creators the chance to internationalize the costuming, choreography, and music. Another number, also set in America in Act II, suggests the vaudevillian roots of American musical theater, as Kalmen (Adam B. Shapiro), “class clown” of the shtetl turned gleeful matchmaker, peddles a catalog of sadly wanting young men to the young maidens, who are now actual maids on Benjamin’s estate. (Actually, I wasn’t sure if these were the same shtetl girls or different characters, but no matter – the number has nothing to do with the plot. It feels like one of the comic vaudeville numbers of the early, revue-like American musicals.)
And that’s just fine. This Golden Bride doesn’t need total internal consistency. As I noted above, it was made for a purpose. And that purpose wasn’t simple and straightforward.
Returned from his travels seeking Goldele’s mother, Misha delivers a rousing number bringing “greetings from the new Russia,” a land recently wracked by violent revolution but now promising freedom and opportunity in parallel with the United States. When the show was first staged, disillusion with the vision of a Soviet socialist utopia hadn’t yet set in among American Jews who still felt strong ties to the old country. Hence this additional layer to the operetta, which turns out to be a broad entertainment but also a deep one in its way. A big mazel tov to NYTF and musicologist Michael Ochs for bringing it back.