New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

"The Pirates of Penzance"
Folksbiene Theatre, Manhattan

Folksbiene (now called The National Yiddish Theatre—Folksbiene) has always done fine work down through the decades. (The only existing Yiddish theater in this country today, it is also our country’s oldest continuing theater, dating back 92 years.) But this time around Folksbiene outdoes even itself. The “Pirates of Penzance,” or, more correctly, “Di Yam Gazlonim!” (translated as “Rascally Robbers of the Sea”) is a positive gem.

By coincidence, two “Pirates” opened at the same time—the Yiddish production in New York and the English-language one at the Goodspeed Theatre in Connecticut. I saw both, dousing myself liberally in the “Pirates” experience.

Amazingly, the Yiddish version prevailed. Although with a far less elaborate stage set and a smaller cast, it outstripped the British version. Warmth, humor, and superb performances were the order of the day for Folksbiene. In contrast, the Goodspeed version, though sprightly and well-performed, lacked heart.

There is no doubt that the language—the Mamaloshen—had something to do with this reviewer’s enthusiasm. When “With Cat-Like Tread” becomes “”Es Zol Zahn Sha!” it becomes hilarious, as do others. The whole score is warm, loving, funny—our Bubbes talking to us once again.

In fact, writer Al Grand has added a new dimension to the Gilbert and Sullivan classic, creating a British operetta filtered through a Jewish sensibility, as director Allen Lewis Rickman explains it.

It is the story, as we know, of a boy apprenticed to a pirate ship, because his nursemaid confused two words—“pilot” and “pirate.” He is freed, he thinks, at 21, and falls in love with a virtuous maiden. But he is torn between loyalty to the pirates and to his new love, and wants to do the honorable thing. The improbable tale lets Gilbert and Sullivan satirize their own society with incomparable tunes and patter.

In this “Pirates,” Frederic, the naïve young hero, becomes Fayvl (played endearingly by Jacob Feldman), and Mabel, the major general’s daughter, becomes Malke, daughter of der groyser general. Dani Marcus fills that role brilliantly, both as actress and singer. And the lusty pirates, not surprisingly, are actually Yeshiva boys. The enthusiastic audiences had no problem with the script and the lyrics, since overhead translations (in English and in Russian) were provided.

It is all great fun, but also highly professional, under direction of Rickman and musical direction of Zalmen Mlotek, Folksbiene’s Executive Director. One need make no apologies for this “Pirates.” Too bad it’s enjoying such a short run. “Pirates,” performing at the Folksbiene’s home at the JCC in Manhattan, closes on Nov. 12. But it does open a full Folksbiene season. And if other Folksbiene shows come close to “Pirates” in quality, it promises to be a rich season.

Here is a sampling of Folksbiene’s upcoming events: on the mainstage, “A Yiddish Vaudeville,” starring Bruce Adler--Dec. 3—17; “A Night in the Old Marketplace” (a new musical based on an I.L.Peretz story) playing from Jan. 27—Feb. 14, 2007; and another new musical comedy “Manakhem-Mendl: Der Troymer (The Dreamer) playing from Mar. 18 - April l.

Among the other numerous Folksbiene events are staged readings, lectures, concerts, kiddy shows, and university-related activities. For further information on this ongoing feast, contact the Folksbiene at 212-213-2120 or

-- Irene Backalenick
Nov. 9, 2006

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