Sunday, December 27, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene's production of The Golden Bride at the Museum Of Jewish Heritage by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene's production of The Golden Bride (Di Goldene Kale) at the Museum Of Jewish Heritage was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Golden Bride (Di Goldene Kale)
Music by Joseph Rumshinsky
Lyrics by Louis Gilrod
Libretto by Freida Freiman
Co-Directors: Bryna Wasserman & Motl Didner
Scenic Design by John Dinning
Costume Design by Izzy Fields
Conductor & Musical Staging: Zalmen Mlotek
Choreographer & Musical Staging: Merete Muenter
Museum Of Jewish Heritage
Edmund J. Safra Hall
36 Battery Place
New York, New York 10280
Reviewed 12/23/15  

The Yiddish-American Musical Theater of the 1880s through the 1940s reflected the struggles and history of Yiddish-speaking Jews living in shtetls that dotted across the Russian Empire and the rest of Eastern Europe and their experiences immigrating by the millions to the United States to escape persecution and to seek out new opportunities for themselves and their families. The Golden Bride was a Yiddish operetta that premiered at the 2,000-seat Kessler's Second Avenue Theater in New York on February 9, 1923, as one of 14 Yiddish programs in the city that evening. It ran for 18 weeks and was then performed in Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Detroit, and many other cities in the United States, South America, and in Europe. Thirteen recordings of songs from the show were released at the time, sheet music for two numbers was published, and a piano roll of the hit "Mayn Goldele" was issued. Before I provide any additional background, let me Cut To Hecuba, as people of the time were often heard to say (a reference to the practice of shortening matinee performances of Hamlet by cutting the long speeches before the reference to Hecuba in Act 2, Scene 2). 

The Golden Bride is absolutely delightful! It is an upbeat, spirited operetta featuring first class performers. The acting and singing are top-notch. All the actors are superior entertainers, but I was particularly impressed with Cameron Johnson, who played Misha, and Adam B. Shapiro, who was Kalmen. Kalmen (Americanized as Clem) was hilarious in his special appearance as Mrs. Pavlova, a noted ballerina. The operetta was meant to amuse and it succeeded in accomplishing that goal from the beginning to the end. The story is a light-hearted, romantic comedy about a young girl who has inherited millions on the death of her father. Her uncle has come to take her to America, but this "golden bride" refuses to marry any of her eager suitors (including the young man she truly loves) until one of them finds her long lost mother. The first act takes place in a Russian shtetl and the second act takes place in New York City. At the end of the first act, Goldele, her uncle, and his son leave for America by exiting the stage and passing through the audience, making the trip all the more dramatic. Why her mother was not in touch with her father; why her father left her to be brought up by innkeepers (think Les Miserables); why her mother stopped searching for her; and why Goldele would pay 4 young men to search for her mother in countries as far off as Japan, remain unanswered questions. Similarly, the chances of all four young men showing up in New York on the same day (along with the results of their all-expense paid trips) are nearly zero, and yet show up they did culminating in a masquerade ball and a happy ending. Would you have it any other way? I highly recommend you see The Golden Bride during its current run at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. You will be glad you did! It is just as good, if not better, than many of the shows currently on Broadway.

The Golden Bride was last staged on February 27, 1948, on New York's Lower East Side. In 1984, musicologist Michael Ochs found a manuscript copy of the vocal score in Harvard's Loeb Music Library, which he headed at the time. The vocal score contained the music and lyrics for the sung portions of the work but lacked the dialogue, some of the lyrics, stage directions, and orchestral parts. Ochs put the score on exhibit in 1984, wrote a brief description, and kept the work in the back of his mind for the next 25 years. He returned to the operetta half a dozen years ago, began to translate the lyrics of the musical numbers, and located a typescript of the dialogue and lyrics at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York  among family papers donated by David and Lisa Roth, grandchildren of librettist Frieda Freiman and children of noted Yiddish actress Flora Freiman. Also at YIVO, Ochs was fortunate to gain the assistance of Yiddish-music expert Chana Mlotek, z"l, who introduced him to her son Zalmen, artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre Forksbiene and music director/conductor of these new performances. A large gift of music manuscripts and other valuable documents from the estate of composer Joseph Rumshinsky came to UCLA in 1974 as a gift of his son, Murray, and daughter, Betty Rumshinsky Fox. Included in this collection are the lead sheet from which the composer conducted the premiere run of the show in 1923 and the original orchestral parts. Using all the resources at Harvard, YIVO, and UCLA, Ochs compiled and edited a full score of the work, transliterating the Yiddish text to reflect the special pronunciation used in Yiddish theater performances. Bringing the score from paper to stage included a concert performance with piano by the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene in May 2014, the company's performance with orchestra at Rutgers last August, and months of preparation since then by a hard-working cast and crew of its current production co-directed by Bryna Wasserman and Motl Didner.

The Golden Bride is set in the early 1920s. In 1917, the Russian Revolution overthrew a centuries old regime of official anti-semitism in the Russian Empire. Misha, one of suitors in this play, reflects that optimism by exhibiting his strong patriotism for Mother Russia and his hope for full equality of all Jews within the new Soviet Union. The Bolsheviks abolished the laws which regarded the Jews as outlawed people and while they were atheists (and sought to close all religious institutions), they supported institutions of secular Yiddish culture, such as the Moscow State Jewish Theater. At the same time, religious traditions among the Jewish population were suppressed and many Jewish properties, including synagogues, were seized. Still, several prominent members of Soviet government institutions and the Communist Party (such as Leon Trotsky, Yakov Sverdlov, Lev Kemenev and Grigory Zinoviev, among others) came from Jewish backgrounds. In 1918, the Yevsektsiya was established to promote Marxism, secularism, and Jewish assimilation into Soviet society. Many Jews in the United States continued to support Stalin and the Communist Party's vision of promoting socialism throughout the world well into the 1950s. In the operetta, Misha spoke of a New Russia where Jews and Christians now fight together to bring socialism to the entire world. He said, "They carry a song of new freedom. The revolution has created shades of light."

Many Jewish stereotypes are recognizable in this operetta. The entrepreneur/hustler always looking to make a buck. The Innkeeper and his wife asking for a million dollars from Goldele's uncle Benjamin for having taken care of her. Everyone else in town handing invoices to her uncle for every stick of gum they ever gave her. Khanele, who claims to love Jerome (Benjamin's son), and accepts a ticket to America, only to put him off (refusing to even call herself his fiance) until he makes her a internationally famous actress. Three of the four young suitors fully prepared to present impostors to Goldele just so she will marry them and make them rich. Finally, we have established immigrants taking advantage of greenhorns (newer immigrants unacquainted with local manners and customs). Perhaps some of these character traits are universal and are evident whenever poorer relatives in the old country interact with richer relatives in the new world. When those first immigrants came to America for new opportunities, they hoped to bring their families with them in due time, but they also hoped to start a new life unencumbered by those in the old world making constant demands on them for money and goods. However, with the advent of modern air travel, those very distant relatives finally found a way to end up on your doorstep with very little effort and/or resources.

Friedrich Brentel the Elder (1580-1651) painted "Ladies & Caveliers In A Ballroom" (1634) depicting a masquerade ball in France, which explains why Goldele welcomed Ladies & Cavaliers to her masquerade ball held in a mansion in New York City. Goldele took to her new life extremely well, hanging out with new friends and playing tennis. But as we learn, true love may conquer all in the end. But will it? Just like in many other romantic comedies of the time, a couple gets married and appears to live "happily ever after," which bears very little resemblance to real life, where most of your problems only start when you tie the knot. It's all diamonds and hearts in the beginning, but by the end of the story, you wish you had a club and a spade!

Presented in Yiddish with English and Russian supertitles, The Golden Bride stars Bob Ader (Benjamin), Glenn Seven Allen (Jerome), Lisa Fishman (Toybe), Regina Gibson (Sheyndl), Jullian Gottlieb (Khanele), Cameron Johnson (Misha), Rachel Policar (Goldele), Bruce Rebold (Pinchas), Adam B. Shapiro (Kalmen) with chorus ensemble members including Jordan Becke, Adam Kaster (Yankl), Jessica Kennedy, Amy Laviolette (Brokhe Sheyndl), Joseph Mace, Isabel Nesti, Alexis Semevolos, Zachary Spiegel (Motke), Tatiana Wechsler (Sheyndl Rivke), and Jeremy Weiss (Berke). The costume designs and sets were all magnificent, and the 14-piece orchestra under the direction of Zalmen Mlotek was flawless.

The Golden Bride runs through January 3, 2016 on the following schedule: Wednesdays & Thursdays at 2:00 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. & 6:00 p.m.; with additional performances on December 29th at 2:00 p.m. and January 1st at noon. No performances December 31st. Tickets cost $45.00 and call be purchased by calling 866-811-4111 or by visiting 

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