The name Joseph Rumshinsky might ring a bell (or a shofar). Ira Gershwin slipped him into “Tchaikowsky,” his patter song of Russian composers in Kurt Weill’s Lady in the Dark. In fact, Rumshinsky had been American for over thirty years by that time. He conducted orchestras for a dozen Yiddish theaters in the vicinity of Tompkins Square, and had composed a few operettas.
One of these, Di Goldene Kale (The Golden Bride), opened in the 2000-seat Second Avenue Theater in 1923, ran twelve weeks and was revived as late as 1948. By that time, post-war, operetta was on the skids in every tongue west of the Iron Curtain, and hardly anyone in New York still spoke Yiddish aside from the Hasidim—who were never much for theater-going.
The Golden Bride, jaunty tunes aside, came by its popularity honestly: The slight plot concerns immigration from Russia to America in conflict with true love, all greased by money. This being an American operetta, immigration, true love and money all win. There is even a sturdy tune in march tempo to the glory of the new Russia (hey, 1923; Lenin was still alive). But the lure of Gelt and Freiheit (“In America, alcohol is against the law! But we all get drunk anyway! Freedom!”) proves too great. And 1923 was far too soon for nostalgia for Tradition.
Yet today (through January 3rd), the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene has resurrected the show, lovingly piecing together ancient orchestrations and long-lost dialogue, greatly stripping down the latter I feel sure. It is being presented in the cozy little theater at the Jewish Heritage Museum in Battery Park. Zalmen Mlotek has arranged the tuneful, effervescent score and conducts it in the liveliest manner imaginable, and with supreme confidence: He and his orchestra play behind a scrim at the back of the stage and are not visible to the players. (They are probably watching him on screens.)
The flow of the piece, no doubt rearranged and tightened by libretto and music editor Michael Ochs, is fast and furious. You have no time to think about plot holes the size of a mikvah or the lack of psychological depth. At that, it’s not so terrible if you’ve ever attended a musical of the 1920s performed with its original book (at Musicals To-nite, say). Before Show Boat (and long after), they’re all like this. Say something, anything, make a bad joke, do some shtick, pass the time quickly till the next song cue. Performers were expected to mug their way out of it.
Di Goldene Kale reminded me of Kalman’s Die Herzogin von Chicago and other such fare, except there are no royals in Yiddish operetta. Blighted romances, mistaken identities, flirtations and a happy ending for all, however, are inevitable. And as with Kalman, the tuneful procession of waltzes, polkas, marches and parodies (Carmen in this case), is sometimes interrupted for a Charleston or a bluesy harmony, just to keep up with the Gershwins. For the wit of Louis Gilrod’s lyrics I cannot speak, having no Yiddish, but they sounded mighty simple. Supertitles are in both English and Russian, and the Yiddish verses often lapse into American slang of the period.
So: Goldele’s father went to America to make his fortune. Now he’s dead, but the money (and America) beckon the orphan, who has been raised on the shtetl by a kindly (and greedy) couple, Pinchas and Toybe. She is kind of in love with their son, Misha, but her American uncle, who has come to fetch her, wants her to marry his son, the very American Jerome—who, conveniently, falls in love with Misha’s dancing sister, Khanele. (Knowing no shame, he teaches her the Charleston, though they are not even betrothed.)
Goldele refuses to marry till her long-lost Mama turns up (she remembers a lullaby), and she will marry the man who can find her. Four suitors set out and each one produces a candidate. There’s a comic matchmaker, Kalmen, male this time, who finds inappropriate husbands for all seven maids in the wealthy American household. (Did Bock and Harnick know this show? The genre, certainly.)
John Dinning did the scenic design and Izzy Fields the costumes, which are dishy—especially Khanele’s Jazz Age outfits and Kalmen’s striped American suit. Whoever did this touch or that (Merete Muenter is the choreographer), the show looks bright as paint, more merry Marc Chagall than grim Chaim Soutine: cheerful. This is a classy, sassy, glittering piece with an enthusiastic, high-spirited, high-stepping bunch of apprentice shtetlim. It’s a simple-minded show, the unsophisticated pastime of an unsophisticated past, but if you sit back and accept it, you’re going to tap your toes (the audience likes to clap with the dancers); the tunes are pretty if rarely flavorsome.
My only quibble with this highly professional enterprise is the use of microphones. In a 350-seat theater, this is preposterous; in no earlier performance of Di goldene Kale was anybody ever miked, even in enormous venues, and the insistent booming of the tenors, the excessive shrillness of the sopranos makes it impossible for me to evaluate any of the singing properly. Call me a perv, but I’d like to hear them with stark naked vocals.
Goldele is Rachel Policar, who is required merely to look sweet and sing Deanna Durbin-style soprano arpeggios in back of the melody. She’s no Deanna, but she’s charming, especially in the lullaby. (Will there be a reprise at the climax? You have to ask?) Rather more life is provided by Jillian Gottlieb, as Khanele, whose comic chops might well be inherited from Lisa Fishman, playing her mother as Molly Picon might have played her.
The scene where this mother is horrified to overhear the passionate lovers’ quarrel between her daughter and Glenn Seven Allen’s Jerome (the couple have theatrical ambitions, emphasis melodrama) is the libretto’s funniest. Allen, a familiar presence on our smaller opera stages, brings his healthy tenor and professional presence to the “sophisticated” Jerome, showing off his Yankee for the hicks back in Belarus.
As the leading man, Cameron Johnson (what was his name before?) sings forthrightly, looks good in a Ruritanian prince’s uniform (at a masked ball yet), and even offers a step or two of mild but convincing Kazatski. (sp?) As Kalmen, Adam B. Shapiro flaunts his matchmaking chops and business instinct with a humor and charm one can only call debonair. Second Avenue debonair, but debonair just the same.
In the old Yiddish theater, the audience was part of the show. Today, we’re a bit uptight for that. We know someone’s watching us. But up on the stage, they acted like the whole world was watching, hoping just to be entertained, and they really enjoyed doing it.