This year’s summer offering by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, Amerike – The Golden Land, is a perfect fit for the NYTF’s mission: “to celebrate the Yiddish experience through the performing arts by transmitting the rich cultural legacy in exciting new ways that bridge social and cultural divides.” It’s not surprising that Amerike – The Golden Land does that so perfectly, since it was commissioned in 1982 by the Workmen’s Circle to do just that. WC Director of Education, Yosl Mlotek, tapped Moishe Rosenfeld and Zalmen Mlotek – now the Artistic Director of the NYTF – to write the piece. And yes, Zalmen is Yosl’s son, and Moishe is Yosl’s nephew. Making Zalmen and Moishe cousins. And you’ve just played a round of what is affectionately known in NYC as “Jewish Geography,” or “are you a landsman (google it)/six degrees of separation.”
But don’t get the wrong idea. The musical Amerike – The Golden Land may be primarily spoken and sung in Yiddish with English and Russian supertitles, and it may chronicle the Eastern European Jewish immigrant experience in America from the turn of the century, but it’s not for Jews only. While some customs and clothing and foodstuffs may differ, the immigrant experience for people from every land has more similarities than differences. Amerike – The Golden Land manages to capture that brilliantly. It doesn’t follow a particular person or family, but it relates the experience of coming here at the turn of the 20th Century, landing on Ellis Island and making a life in a new land. A universal and levelling experience, no matter what your ethnic background.
Mlotek and Rosenfeld have not written new music for Amerike, but have taken traditional songs, songs from the period and about the period, and woven them into an eye-opening and moving historical tapestry of story, music & dance with several reoccurring characters. Going in roughly chronical order, it starts on the boat ride over and the conflicting emotions of sadness and fear at leaving home and loved ones forever and the excitement of moving to, well… Amerike – The Golden Land. The place where gold is shoveled off the sidewalks according to popular report.
Veteran director Bryna Wasserman, with a healthy assist from Jason Lee Courson’s spare but effective scenic and projection design, Yael Lubetzky’s complementary lighting design, and Izzy Field’s beautiful and specific costume designs, keeps the pace, places and years moving quickly and recognizably through landing at Ellis Island, being a greenhorn in lower Manhattan to getting a place to live and finding that the streets aren’t paved in gold and getting a job. Then through the labor movement, the joys of becoming a citizen, WWI, the Depression, Yiddish theater and radio, WWII, and economic and social advancement, all in an intermission-free 90 minutes.
Even more remarkable are the performances of the cast, especially the featured performers Glenn Seven Allen, Alexandra Frohlinger, Daniel Kahn, Dani Marcus, Stephanie Lynne Mason and David Perlman. Only one of them actually started rehearsals speaking Yiddish. But I defy anyone to figure out which one from their pronunciation alone, they were all that good. Aside from spectacular singing voices – Glenn Seven Allen is a well-known operatic and Broadway tenor who is also on the faculty of the Yale School of Drama, and Daniel Kahn is a well-known Klezmer musician who fronts the band Daniel Kahn & The Painted Bird – this cast is full to the brim like stuffed derma with Broadway and regional acting credits. This is a show that will please the whole family from 10 year-old Junior to 90 year-old great grandma.
Truthfully – this is the story of America – no matter how it’s spelled. The struggle of people who were not free in the land they came from to live peacefully and prosperously. What is searingly captured in Amerike – The Golden Land, is the indomitable will of human beings not just to survive, but to survive beautifully. The desire to be able to stand upright, and claim who you are, own it and be proud, which has enabled people to endure the most horrible conditions and trials imaginable, work hard, and still be able to give thanks and smile at the end of the road. It is Darwin’s theory of evolution writ in human hand – survival of the fittest. Immigrants are the strongest and the bravest, they are who populated the entire world, not just our country. Immigrants need to be recognized and honored for the wealth they bring to their new lands, and Amerike – The Golden Land does just that.
Amerike – The Golden Land Written by Moishe Rosenfeld and Zalmen Mlotek, Directed by Brynna Wasserman
WITH: Glenn Seven Allen (Oppenheimer); Alexandra Frohlinger (Sadie); Daniel Kahn (Joe); Dani Marcus (Fannie); Stephanie Lynne Mason (Gussie); David Perlman (Izzie); Jessica Rose Futran (u/s Sadie, Gussie, Fannie); Christopher Tefft (u/s Oppenheimer, Izzie, Joe); Maya Jacobson (Chorus); Alexander Kosmowski (Chorus); Isabel Nesti (Chorus); Raquel Nobile (Chorus); Grant Richards (Chorus); Bobby Underwood (Chorus).
ORCHESTRA: Katsumi Ferguson (Violin), Jordan Hirsch (Trumpet); Dmitry Ishenko (Bass); Daniel Linden (Trombone); Zalmen Mlotek (Musical Director/Piano); Sean Perham (Percussion); Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch (Reeds/Music Contractor); Andrew Wheeler (Assoc. Musical Director/Piano).
Movement by Merete Muenter; Lighting Designs by Yael Lubetzky; Costume Designs by Izzy Fields; Scenic & Projection Designs by Jason Lee Courson; Sound Design by Patrick Calhoun; Props Designed by Colleen Lynch; Casting and General Management by Jamibeth Margolis; Yiddish Diction Coach, Matthew (Motl) Didner; Production Manager, Bonnie Sue Stein; Production Stage Manager, Eileen F. Haggerty; Assistant Stage Manager, Rachel Calter. Presented by National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, Christopher Massimine, Executive Producer/NYTF Chief Executive Officer. Performances through August 6th at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 35 Battery Place. For tickets call 212-213-2130 or visit www.nytf.org.