New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

National Yiddish Theatre -- the JCC in Manhattan

One piece of little-known Yiddish culture deserves to be revisited, rediscovered. Not every one knows that Warsaw between the wars had a flourishing Yiddish cabaret scene. It is a piece of Jewish history which deserves reclamation.

Hence Rebecca Joy Fletcher to the rescue. In attempting to bring back that particular culture, that particular time in history, actress/playwright/cantor Rebecca Joy Fletcher has worked toward a worthy goal. With that cabaret world as her text, she has researched with the persistence and dedication of a scholar. It was a veritable renaissance, a time of creative and social ferment for Warsaw’s Jews (who comprised 30 percent of the city’s population). Yiddish (rather than Polish) was the language of choice—and an act of defiance--for its cabaret stars.

Reaching back into that material, Fletcher has put together a revue of 14 songs and patter (which she recreates with fellow-performer Stephen Mo Hanan). The show plays through the end of December at the National Yiddish Theatre—Folksbiene (located at the JCC in Manhattan, New York). But alas, “Kleynkunst” (which means “little art”) is a letdown. Despite its worthy goals, the show never makes it, never gets there. The fault lies not with the two performers, who are certainly pros, but with the musical arrangements, which come across with boring repetitiveness. Where is the zing? Even Kurt Weill’s “Mack the Knife” which opens the show, lacks its usual emotional impact.

Yet “Kleykunst” has its compensations. Fletcher and Hanan play off each other nicely, sounding just the right note of exaggeration. Their mix of Yiddish and English (aided by overhead translations) make the show accessible to any audience. And, among the songs, “Krokhmalne Gas” (Krochmalna Street) is a touching tribute to a lost neighborhood, and “Oy, Madagaskar!” is a fine example of Jewish black humor.

Finally, a word of praise for the competent design team: Gail Cooper-Hecht costumes are right on target, with Fletcher’s clothes and hairdo evocative of the period. Set and lighting designer Brian Nason bathes everything in a rosy glow, with lights glinting off red velvet drapes. Where the songs fail, the designers succeed. Would that “Kleynkunst!” had achieved its purpose on all levels!

-- Irene Backalenick
November 30, 2007

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