Did you remember to hug your bubbie today? If not, you should definitely do that; while you're at it, ask her about her life. This is the implicit suggestion of The National Yiddish Theatre's The Golden Land playing at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, which is framed as a letter from an aging first generation Jewish-American woman to her grandson. Even if you aren't Jewish, you can appreciate the stories of struggle and perseverance recounted in this emotional and entertaining historical musical revue: they are stories that are reflected in the lives of countless American immigrants, both today and throughout history.
The Golden Land features a whopping forty-three songs and sixty years of Jewish-American history crammed into a brisk two hours. It begins in the 1880s with dreamy-eyed eastern European Jews fleeing for America and ends shortly after World War II. Much of the action takes place on Manhattan's Lower East Side, a magical place where formerly non-English speaking immigrants are instantly transformed into fast-talking street peddlers. As these new arrivals are crushed under the wheels of American capitalism however, many decide to fight back and form the crux of what would become organized labor and the progressive movement in America-- all before intermission!
The frenetic pace of The Golden Land successfully conveys the manic depressive nature of the American immigrant experience as the characters rapidly oscillate between moments of dizzy exuberance (spotting the statue of liberty, starting a business, becoming a citizen) and crushing despair (learning that your children are being deported, dying in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, listening helplessly to news reports of Nazi concentration camps).
However, plot takes a backseat to the larger historical events and trends in Moishe Rosenfeld's tight book. There are characters that appear throughout the show, but we learn about them in snapshots rather than intimate narratives. Therefore, it is essential for the actors to make an impression with the limited time and material they have and, for the most part, they do.
Daniella Rabbani is adorable as Sadie, the news girl for the Jewish Daily Forward. Her irrepressible smile and charisma make her songs glow with warmth, particularly "Oy, I like him." Cooper Grodin drips with machismo (and rocks a pretty spectacular moustache) as Joe, the sexy suspenders-clad socialist with a killer voice. And when Stacey Harris stepped off the boat in a meek and understated turn as a Holocaust survivor, I found myself getting all verklempt.
All of the action takes place on Roger Hanna's streetscape stage, which is meant to evoke the cobblestones of a New York long gone. The only moving pieces in this efficient and versatile set are a series of old trunks and crates from which props and costumes spring forth like Tiffany lamps from Mary Poppins' carpet bag.
One gets the feeling that the engaging klezmer score, lovingly compiled and arranged by Zalmen Mlotek out of pre-existing Yiddish music from the era that could easily have also come from those dusty old trunks. These songs are rarely heard anymore, but they've been given new life under Bryna Wasserman's sure-footed direction. The actors perform songs like, "Amerike, Hurrah for Onkkl Sem," "Vatch Your Step," and "Ikh Breng Aykh a Grus Fun Di Trenches," the Yiddish answer to George M. Cohan's "Over There."
In a particularly effective moment, the score mashes up "Fun Downtown-Uptown," a song about the pleasure of uptown living and "Fifty, Fifty," a socialist anthem about shared prosperity between management and workers. In doing so, Mlotek and Rosenfeld musically tell the story of a complex debate that still rages within the Jewish-American community about the best way to distribute wealth in a free society.
The Golden Land is ultimately a tale of the foundation built by a first generation of immigrants who toiled away in menial jobs so that their children and grandchildren could aspire to higher things. It shouldn't escape us that The Golden Land is performing at Bernard Baruch College, named after the multimillionaire financier who was a trusted adviser to Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, and the son of a German-Jewish immigrant.