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Yiddish Theatre

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The Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre Continues its Historic Journey
By Irene Backalenick

Theatre critic Irene Backalenick covers theatre for national and regional publications. She has a Ph.D.in theatre criticism from City University Graduate Center. Her book "East Side Story--Ten Years with the Jewish Repertory Theatre" (based on her doctoral thesis) won a first-place national book award in history. Other awards in journalism and theatre criticism include a New York Times Publishers Award (received while writing for The New York Times). Her professional organizations include the American Theatre Critics Association, Association for Jewish Theatre, Outer Critics Circle (on the executive board), Drama Desk, Actors Equity Derwent Committee, and the Connecticut Critics Circle e-mail: IreneBack@aol.com  Web : www.nytheaterscene.com  

How appropriate that the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre takes on the history of Yiddish theatre for its current show! The Folksbiene, in itself, is history made incarnate, as it celebrates its 90th season. The venerable company is the longest continually-producing theater in this country, Jewish or otherwise. And now, joining hands with Montreal’s Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre (the only two remaining Yiddish theaters in both countries), it has mounted a revival of “On Second Avenue” (created originally by Moishe Rosenfeld and Zalmen Mlotek, the Folksbiene’s Executive Director).

While this lively Yiddish-English revue will have its chief appeal to Jewish audiences, it can be of interest to any theater-lover—or student of theater history, for that matter. Audiences who want that trip down memory lane will certainly be gratified, but overhead translations in English make the show accessible to every one, however limited their knowledge of Yiddish.

The show features Mike Burstyn, along with Robert Paul Abelson, Joanne Borts, Lisa Fishman, Elan Kunin, and Lisa Rubin, with pre-teen actress Reyna Schaechter, in a series of song, movement, and comic routines. Burstyn, who was born into Yiddish theater (although he made the cross-over to Broadway and other mainstream entertainment), gets all the old-time comic shticks and songs. (Burstyn’s parents, Pesach Burstein and Lillian Lux, were long-time stars of the Yiddish theater.) But his fellow performers fill out the chinks. The senior member of the troupe, Abelson, offers a fine operatically-trained voice, undimmed by time, and Lisa Rubin is particularly fetching in a number of ingenue roles. Director Bryna Wasserman knew how to play to the particular strengths of her performers. But Borts, Fishman and Kunin all offer solid professional support. And Schaechter has an appealing number as a little boy reluctant to attend Hebrew School. Melodramas, musicals, revised classics, comedies are all played out in shortened versions, evoking the old Yiddish theater of New York City’s Second Avenue. And snippets of film, depicting performers Molly Picon, Pesach Burstein and others, augment the show.

Through song and talk “On Second Avenue” traces Yiddish theater from its 19th century origins in Jassy, Romania, to its Golden Age in this country. Under the astute direction of Wasserman, Artistic Director of the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, the show has its moments of poignancy and yearning, but never slows its pace.

Related Links:

  • Read additional reviews by Irene Backalenick
  • Read additional reviews on Yiddish Theatre
  • The joy of Yiddish theater

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  • Irene Backalenick

    MIKE BURSTYN strikes a pose reminiscent of his great father Pesach Burstein in the musical revue "On Second Avenue." PHOTO BY: Richie Fahey

    The cast of "On Second Avenue" includes LISA RUBIN, ELAN KUNIN, ROBERT ABELSON, JOANNE BORTS, MIKE BURSTYN andLISA FISHMAN star in "On Second Avenue."

    Poster of “On Second Avenue”

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