by Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.
On Second Avenue-- A Heavy Dose of Nostalgia.
The Folksbienne Yiddish Theater, producers
at JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Avenue (76 Street)
Running till January 1, 2006
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden December 3, 2005
If you love the past and you're Jewish you will love this show. On the other hand, you don't have to be Jewish to appreciate this cleverly put together remembrance of a great time in the theater. "On Second Avenue" is full of history, romance, and love. The "old" second avenue, the Broadway of the Yiddish theater, began at 14th Street and stretched the entire length of the avenue, to produce a renaissance of Yiddish theater: comedies, vaudeville, cabaret, melodramas, and serious dramas--even Shakespeare. Many singers, now a distant memory, started their career on Second Avenue, not to speak of the famous comics who based much of their material on the ambiance that defined Jewishness of that time.
Created by Moishe Rosenfeld and Zalmen Mlotek, and produced by the enterprising leading performer, Mike Burstyn, "On Second Avenue" celebrates the theater days on Second Avenue and the Jewish immigrants who brought us their stories, their myths, their tradition, their music. And their talent.
As a child, my mother and my aunts went as often as they could to Second Avenue to see some of the greats. And they took me and all us kids with them. My family loved these actors, singers, writers, and vaudevillians. They took pride in their Jewishness; they loved Molly Picon, Aaron Lebeideff, Sholem Secunda, Moishe Oysher--and these excursions out of Brooklyn was a rare treat. But my father relished the more serious actors: Maurice Schwartz and his Yiddish Art Theater; the rave of the time. Schwartz was the leading dramatic actor and theater manager and his famous Shakespeare performances --King Lear and Shylock--were the subject of many discussions around our kitchen table. So was I. J. Singer's "Yoshe Kalb", another must-see for my father. Even as a child I was thrilled to go to second avenue although I didn't quite understand the significance of it all. Later on when the American theater attracted me and Jewish performers went on to Broadway--Fannie Brace, Sophie Tucker--and the great Jewish comics were hitting radio, the stage, movies and TV, I remembered second avenue where many had come from and what their Jewish inheritance meant.
And so this production, with its limited resources and its five actors and the ingenious Mike Burstyn, delivers an amazing panorama of the Yiddish theatrical past. Many of the songs are recognizable because my mother sang them in her sweet voice in our kitchen as she prepared dinner. Seeing this production and hearing the melodies brought back a world gone forever, but luckily preserved by this excellent company, the Folkbienne Yiddish theater.
Of course some people would rather forget the past and possibly be offended by some of the characters which might border on the stereotape but the Yiddish theater technique was not based on the Stanislavsky method; reality was not the style; melodrama and vaudeville were the main attractions. Often the performers, some of them immigrants themselves, brought their own nostalgia into their work. They recalled the old country, the songs they sang in Yiddish, and the stories they remembered from their fathers and grandfathers and then told to their own children.
I recommend this show; it is worth seeing. Besides it is neighborhood endeavor which makes it all the more important. All kinds of people from the West side can walk over, and I for one am grateful for that. Getting away from the ugly crowds that stalk Broadway has lately made theater going an unpleasant chore. Although 42nd street has been redone, those in charge have not redone the unruly crowds, the vulgar billboards, and the general junky atmosphere with its cheap souvenir shops, sidewalk traders, and awful tourists joints. Once Broadway with its great Hotel Actor, its famous restaurants, and its wonderful lights was a glamours wonderland, but now walking down the street resembles a hideous nightmare. So go to the Jewish Community Center (the JCC) and catch this delightful show. You won't be sorry.
Margaret Croyden's most recent book is "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
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