Jack Quinn

Victor Gluck

Chip Deffaa

The Golden Land
By: Joel Benjamin
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Sandy Rosenberg, Daniella Rabbani and Stacey Harris in a scene from
The Golden Land
(Photo credit: Michael Priest Photography)

Although there’s a lot of rich history in the National Yiddish Theatre—Folksbiene’s The Golden Land, it is, above all, a thoroughly entertaining show. Somehow six energetic actors on a fairly empty stage manage to portray everything from immigrants landing at Ellis Island on the painful path to assimilation to the creation of Israel in just two joyous hours. Created by Zalmen Mlotek and Moishe Rosenfeld and directed by Bryna Wasserman, The Golden Land may often veer towards cliché, but behind every cliché is a reality and the torturous reality of these immigrants is dealt with in song and humor. Can you get more Jewish (or Black or Irish or Italian) than that? The sheer range of the music from vintage 19th Century gems to exciting Klezmer to Americanized Jewish folk songs is worth a visit to The Golden Land.

A voiceover grandmother narrates the show, her letters to her grandson providing the links between the songs and skits. She speaks of pogroms and the voyage from Europe. The first few songs deal with how difficult it was to leave even a land where persecution of Jews was commonplace. As the new arrivals’ ship approaches New York Harbor, they sing “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” (The New Colossus) about the thrill of seeing the Statue of Liberty and then are plunged into the world of sweatshops, street peddlers, the Jewish Daily Forward and the occasional romance.

Tradition proved the backbone of the immigrants’ lives, and kept them going through tough times. Several songs, for instance, illuminate Sabbath rituals.

As the characters acclimate and learn to fend for themselves and their unionizing message is made more urgent by the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, they can, by Act 2, reap the benefits of living in America—such as better homes, better jobs and careers—that is until the Depression hits and The Golden Land again is replete with darker songs like “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and “A Khulem (A Dream)” and nostalgia for the “simpler” lives they left behind (“Belz, Mayn Shtetele Belz”).

Through the epic tragedy of the Holocaust to the happy creation of the nation of Israel, this show illuminates with humor and pathos the pathway of the Jewish Americans.

Cooper Grodin and Bob Ader in a scene
from The Golden Land
(Photo credit: Michael Priest Photography)

Instrumental in keeping the show from shtick and maudlin sentimentality is the cast of six extraordinary singing, acting performers. They also dance a little, though Deanna Dys’ apt choreography put few demands on the cast. Bob Ader, Cooper Grodin, Stacey Harris, Andrew Keltz, Daniella Rabbani and Sandy Rosenberg all are convincing as they create, often through song alone, scores of familiar characters that take life on the Baruch Performing Arts Center stage as three-dimensional humans. They all have terrific voices and their Yiddish is clear and understandable even to those, like myself, who are rusty.

Also outstanding is the band led by conductor/pianist Mlotek. Not only do these seven expert musicians play everything from foot-stomping klezmer to Yiddish folksongs to theater songs, but they also occasionally add heft to the cast of characters by wandering onto the stage.

Roger Hanna’s simple set design with its two staircases, angular pipe sculptured walls and vintage props gave the actors much to work with as did the impeccable costumes of Natasha Landau. Brian W. Barnett’s lighting design created moods that only enhanced the skits and songs.

Wasserman’s direction drew great performances from the cast and kept the show from flagging even for a moment.

The National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene has a treasure trove of exuberance on its hands. Jews and non-Jews alike will be entertained and enlightened by The Golden Land.

The Golden Land (through December 2)
Baruch Performing Arts Center, 151 E. 25th Street, between Lexington & 3rd Aves., in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-312-5073 or http://www.NationalYiddishTheatre.org

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