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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Meester Amerika 
Yiddish Theater Musical Hits All the Right Notes

Also see Bob's review of Sick

Meeser Amerika
Jeff Keller and Steve Sterner
For those of us for whom Yiddish theatre and music is part of our culture, the announcement of a production of the world premiere of "a new All-American Musical about 1920s Yiddish theatre" quickens the pulse.  However, although it is more than ninety percent sung and spoken in English, that musical is not just about Yiddish theatre. Meester Amerika totally recaptures the heart and soul of the Yiddish-American musical comedies that I saw on Second Avenue stages during the 1940s and '50s.  Now, mind you, this was not high minded, realistically plotted, fancy-schamcy theatre.  It is farcical, musically robust, sentimental and low brow.  Although it will be quite a challenge to attract youthful and non-Jewish ticket buyers, Meester Amerika is so good that it extends beyond being "ethnic" entertainment to become an hilarious, musically rich experience for everyone who enjoys old-fashioned musical comedy even in this early stage of its development.

The plot is a cross between a reverse The Jazz Singer and La Cage aux Folles.  Impresario-actor Marcus Rose has made his son Joey into the star attraction at his Lower East Side theatre.  He has even arranged for a Broadway producer to see Joey perform.  However, Joey wants to become a cantor.  At show time, Joey is nowhere to be found.  He is on their building rooftop davnening (chanting prayers).  There Joey has met Simma, the frum (religious) daughter of a famous Brooklyn rabbi.  It is love at first sight.  Afraid to lose Simma, Joey tells her that he is from a family of cantors.  Joey has invited Simma and her parents to the apartment over their theatre where he lives with his widowed father and his late mother's siblings, his Aunt Yetta and Uncle Benjamin.  For Sammy's sake, Marcus agrees to impersonate being a cantor. Yetta and Benjamin (members of the Marcus' stage company) enact "roles" to help Joey win over Simma's family.  The complications have hardly begun and you may well already be saying to yourself, "oy vey" (woe is me).  However, go along for the ride and Meester Amerika will earn your admiration and laughter with its audacious meshugas (craziness).

Meester America is not a musical comedy about the troubles and aspirations of the Yiddish speaking immigrant.  That was the purview of the best of the melodramas of the Yiddish stage.  Meester Amerika, like its musical forebears, is the deeply satisfying, sentimental, comedic and music laden common man's evening of theatre that brightened the difficult lives of those immigrant tailors, laborers, factory workers, and their first generation children.

The book by Jennifer Berman has the ability to shift through plot and comic situations of a vintage nature, and cobble them together in a delightful, almost coherent manner.  It captures the Yiddish theatre in all its flamboyant excess.  It provides an ideal environment for a musical which combines old Yiddish classics with a brand new score.  Songs are sung both to advance the story, and as in performance numbers on Marcus' theatre stage.

Arrive early as there is a pre-show mini klezmer concert by the expert three-piece orchestra, leading off with the Yiddish folk song "Tumbalalika."  Most prominent among the musicians is Meester Amerika's composer Artie Bressler on the clarinet and other woodwinds.  To these ears, the music contains a full variety of the stylings of the Yiddish stage prominently, including the popular big band type Broadway melodies of the World War II era and beyond.  The lovely "Bashert" ("Predestined") beautifully sung by Amy London (Yetta) happily recalls Jule Styne and his "Make Someone Happy."  Another lovely, old-fashioned ballad is "A Little Love in Big Manhattan."  London joins with Steve Sterner (Benjamin) for a delightful polka, "Let's Do a Mitzvah" ("good deed"). Lyricist Michael Colby's lyrics work overtime and very well in providing supple, romantic lyrics for the ballads and vernacular humor for the bright, humorous songs.  There are about seven classic Yiddish songs included in the generous 20-song score.  All are sung in English in felicitous translations. Most satisfyingly, half are also sung in Yiddish. Colby has either written new English lyrics or tweaked English lyrics written by either the original lyricist or other English adaptors.  Colby has scrupulously credited these "collaborators."  A particularly richly melodic tune "Sheyn Vi Di L'Vone" ("Pretty as the Moon") has become "Nothing Compares to This" (those who are familiar with the song will instantly notice how perfectly Colby's words sit on the music).  It is beautifully performed by David Perlman (Joey) and Melissa Schoenberg (Simma). At least one chorus in Yiddish would be welcome here and in two other of these classics both to increase the time that we can spend absorbing the melodies and the evening's Yiddish tam (taste).  Much credit is due to Gary Haberman, who is also keyboardist here, for his bright orchestrations which revitalize the older melodies to suit modern ears.  Vivki Casella (on keyboards) expertly conducts the tight orchestra.

Director Michael Bias has assembled a stellar cast for this delightful confection.  Jeff Keller projects just the right amount of comic vanity as Marcus Rose.  His rendition of the classic lullaby "Papirosn" ("Cigarettes"), adapted here as "Boy in the Rain," in Yiddish and English is one of the evening's highlights.  Particularly superb in capturing the full style and flavor of Meester America is Steve Sterner as Uncle Benjamin.  Sterner has the largest and most crucial share of the farcical humor, and he carries it off in grand fashion.  Sterner is much larger physically than the legendary Menashe Skulnik who wrote and performed a song that Sterner does here.  However, Sterner has so well captures Skulnik's style and gestures that, as soon as he moved onto the stage to perform "It Shouldn't Happen to a Dog, Skulnik's name popped into my head.  Earlier, in a scene from an actual vintage Yiddish show, Sterner delighted the audience with a comic song naming wedding guests:  "There's Lenny Steiner and Rivka Reiner, Murray Shiner, Fanny Feiner, Hymie Winer, Ina Kleiner ... Beth and Abie with the Baby, Fran and Manny, Brought their granny."

As Aunt Yetta, Benjamin's partner in comedy, Amy London adds a fine comic performance to her already noted musical contributions.  Jerry Lazar is most amusing as Maxi, the stage manager smitten with Yetta, as are Clifton Lewis and Rachel Kurland in the smaller roles of Simma's parents.  There is a second pair of young lovers played by Malorie Charak (Luba) and Ben Rauch (Shloyme).  Charak plays Luba, the attractive ingιnue of Marcus' company.  She makes the most of her lighthearted solo song "Support" in which Luba laments her invisibility to the theatrical family to which she gives her all.  Rauch portrays the orthodox youth Shloyme, whose true interests will take a while to emerge, with sweetness and a legitimate tenor voice.

Meester Amerika is an astonishingly accurate recreation of the golden age of the American Yiddish Theatre and its infectious, hilarious musical comedies.  The center of Yiddish Theatre shifted from Europe to New York about 1920.  However, by the 1950s, assimilation and the disinterest of American Jewry (the greater number of whose families had immigrated to America after The Great War) in passing on their Eastern European Yiddish language and culture to their children had reduced the audience to a small fraction of its peak size.  Most of its potential next generation audience had already gravitated to Broadway where "ethnic" musicals, such as The Education of Hyman Kaplan, Molly, Fiddler on the Roof and Rags could be seen, and the music of such Jewish composers as Harold Arlen featuring the keening Eastern European strains of Yiddish music had become integral.

Over the ensuing half century, efforts have continued to produce new musicals in the distinctive, hamish (cozy, unpretentious) Yiddish theatre mode, but over time they have become less frequent.  The most successful in attracting audiences have been revues whose entire scores consist of Yiddish theatre songs of the golden age.  More recent attempts at new book musicals in its idiom have failed to capture the zesty taste of an art which is not instinctive to their youthful authors.  Meester Amerika's creative team has amazingly captured the joyful essence of Yiddish musical comedy in a book musical with just the right mixture of old and new songs, and its cast and director have reproduced its performance style magnificently.

Meester Amerika continues performances (Evenings: Thursday-Saturday 8 PM/ Mats: Sun 3 PM) through March 1, 2008 at the Garage Theatre Group in residence at the Becton Theatre at Fairleigh Dickinson University, 960 River Road, Teaneck, New Jersey.  Box Office: 201-569-7710; online: www.GarageTheatre.org

Meester Amerika Book by Jennifer Berman/ Music by Artie Bressler/ Music by Michael Colby; directed by Michael Bias

Cast:
Marcus Rose……………………Jeff Keller
Yetta Rubin…………………...Amy London
Benjamin Rubin…………….Steve Sterner
Joey Rose……………….David B. Perlman
Luba Levy………………….Malorie Charak
Maxi Snyder…………………….Jerry Lazar
Simma………………..Melissa Schoenberg
The Rebbe…………………….Clifton Lewis
The Rebbetzn……………..Rachel Kurland
Shloyme…………………………..Ben Rauch

The authors of Captain Amerika received creative guidance from New York's Folksbiene National Yiddish Theatre and its artistic director, Zalmen Mlotek.  Information about the Folksbiene is available online at www.folksbiene.org.


Photo: Justin Bias


Be sure to Check the current schedule for theatre in New Jersey


Photo: Joan Marcus


- Bob Rendell



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