Thursday, 03 August 2017

Celebrating a ‘Golden Land’ With a Lot of Song and a Little Mugging

Emma Lazarus’s words inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty — “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” set to song by Irving Berlin — announce the ending of “Amerike — The Golden Land,” playing at the Museum of Jewish Heritage within earshot of Lady Liberty herself.

A reimagining of Zalmen Mlotek and Moishe Rosenfeld’s 1984 musical, here presented entirely in Yiddish with Russian and English supertitles by the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, “Amerike” tells the story of Jewish people’s emigration from Europe to America in 1897 and their adjustment through the 1940s.

Something between a revue and a textbook chronology of Jewish history in New York, “Amerike,” directed by Bryna Wasserman, toggles between friendly gibes at American culture and somber accounts of past hardships. Revues typically invite more playfulness than “Amerike” allows, though it finds its heart in moments of self-aware mugging, whether it’s an unhelpful Jewish radio weatherman shrugging off the forecast as “neither here nor there,” or witches toiling, troubling and kvetching in an early Yiddish theater’s take on “Macbeth.”

However, with a sprint through more than 40 musical numbers, the musical’s attempts to encapsulate such horrors as the Triangle factory fire in three-minute songs feel rushed and didactic, one melody bleeding into another.

The 12-member company’s harmonies stand out in “Bread and Roses,” a poem-turned-anthem for women’s labor rights, as does the lively choreography in “Mir Arbetn.” Among the individual performers, Stephanie Lynne Mason is in full-bodied voice in “A Brivele der Mamen” and “Vi Nemt Men Parnuse?” Daniel Kahn has a trumpeting vocal style, while David Perlman’s grinning enthusiasm is infectious.

Framed by scaffolding and moving set pieces resembling brick walls, the staging recalls the landscape of old New York — until the focus shifts to projections on the backdrop, where flat images and graphics detract rather than add.

Ending with Lazarus’s words (this week a subject of social media debate) may be too neat for a show that addresses — both sincerely and ironically — the complications of the American dream. But “Amerike” mostly aims to educate museum-goers and share in nostalgia for Jewish-American culture of yore — and at that it succeeds.

Above all, in this xenophobic moment the show dares to celebrate a cultural history in which America might help shape a people, and, more important, in which a people might help shape America.