The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, most recently the progenitor of the immensely successful Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof, has reached even further back in the tradition of Jewish-themed theater in New York City, to 1878, presenting Avrom Goldfaden’s The Sorceress, the first piece of Yiddish theater to appear on an American stage, in the City with a burgeoning Yiddish speaking population.
Goldfaden’s escapist musical fantasy combines bits and pieces from many sources: the Cinderella fairy tale; Gilbert-and-Sullivan-esque rapid-fire, tongue twister songs; old-fashioned (even in 1878!) melodrama; Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio; and—believe it or not—the Seventies’ TV sitcom, Laverne and Shirley! (The L & S reference, to be absolutely honest, might be an interjection improvised by the actor—yes actor—playing the title role.)
Typical of melodramas, even lighthearted ones like The Sorceress, the characters are either good or evil with a few familiar shtetl types tossed in for sheer entertainment’s sake. Costumer Izzy Fields might have taken the easy way out and used black to costume the evil ones and white the nice ones; but, far from it, he used colorfully layered period costumes for both groups and recognizable outfits for the tinkers, bakers and butchers.
The good characters: rich, pedigreed ingénue, Mirele (sweet-voiced Jazmin Gorsline); her fiancé Markus (Josh Kohane, giving depth to a too good character); her father, Avromtshe (Bruce Rebold, properly noble, even in extremis); her mother Lize (Dylan Seders Hoffman, making a fine impression in a short-lived role); and the colorful notions salesman, Hotsmakh (a totally wonderful Steve Sterner).
The evil characters: Basye, Mirele’s step-mother (Rachel Botchan, boo-ably awful); Basye’s uncle, Elyokem (Jonathan Brody, effective as an elegant devil); and the Sorceress, herself, Bobo Yakhne (gleefully and campily portrayed by the charismatic Mikhl Yashinsky).
The complicated plot involves the death of Mirele’s loving mother who is replaced by the nasty, self-serving Basye who foisted herself upon Mirele’s father Avromtshe. Basye plots along with Elyokem and Bobo to get rid of both Avromtshe and Mirele to claim the family’s fortune. She is successful in making both disappear, framing the father on trumped up charges and abducting Mirele into white slavery (!).
Through the yeoman efforts of Markus and Hotsmakh all ends happily with the good characters saved in the nick of time and the villains hoisted by their own petard.
A long scene in a village marketplace must have reminded the original immigrant audience of their European roots while an exotic scene set in Istanbul excited their imaginations, severely limited by sweatshops and ghetto living.
The colorful set—two chambers connected by a horizontal room—designed with relish by Dara Wishingrad, evokes the colors and patterns of Lower East Side synagogues and provide discrete spaces for each scene.
The lighting of Natalie Robin enhances the mood of each scene and energized Wishingrad’s color scheme.
The songs, from the celebratory “Tsi Dayn Geburtstug” celebrating Mirele’s sad birthday to her flirtatious “Ku-Ku” to Hotsmakh’s sales spiel, “Hotsmakh’s Kuplet” to Mirele’s heartbreaking plea for help, “O Ir Yidn Bney Rakhmonim” to the happy finale, “Mazel Tov,” are all vibrant audience pleasers, including tearjerking ballads and upbeat dance rhythms, vigorously conducted by Zalmen Mlotek.
Merete Muenter’s simple, but effective choreography, including some hilarious faux Turkish hip swirling, is entertaining.
This first rate production, directed with an eye toward authenticity and flow by Motl Didner honors the original with style and wit.
This production of Goldfaden’s The Sorceress is the first-born child of the Yiddish Theatre Global Restoration Initiative which is dedicated to painstakingly uncovering and assembling formerly lost theatrical artifacts. Zalmen Mlotek, Motl Didner and Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch are credited with restoring and reconceiving The Sorceress for this production.
The Sorceress (through December 29, 2019)
National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene
Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.NYTF.org
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission