THE SORCERESS: A YIDDISH MUSICAL FANTASY“Magic, Music, and Mishegas”
By: Samuel L. Leiter
December 6, 2019: The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, born 104 years ago, has been dispensing theatrical milk and honey since finding a homeland in 2016 at the lovely Edward J. Safra Hall, located in Battery Park’s Museum of Jewish Heritage (itself a must-see). It deserves a loud “Mazel Tov” shout-out for once again bringing theatrical nachas to the New York stage, with its exuberant revival of Avrom (Abraham) Goldfaden’s The Sorceress (Die Kishefmakhern), sometimes known as The Witch or The Witch of Batushan.
The Sorceress is entirely in Yiddish, with English and Russian surtitles, the former in Motl Didner’s translation. Didner, who provides the enthusiastic staging, collaborated on the show’s restoration and reconstruction with musical director Zalmen Mlotek, and Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch. The spirited choreography is by Merete Muenter. Although the show is sung and spoken in Yiddish, many of the actors don’t know the language and learned their lines phonetically. As in previous Folksbiene productions, the remarkable results are seamless.
The musical (operetta, actually) is the first in the Folksbiene’s Global Restoration Initiative, chosen, as the program notes, “because of its historic place as the first piece of Yiddish theatre ever presented in America for a nascent Eastern European Jewish immigrant community in New York in 1883.” The venue was Turn Hall on E. 4th Street, the site of Off Broadway’s La Mama. The new version received a concert performance in September 2017, its cast including Rachel Botchan and Steve Sterner, who play the wicked stepmother, Basye, and the peddler, Hotsmakh, in the current production. A workshop production followed in Romania in 2017, and then a reading at Safra Hall in the last week of that year.
Goldfaden’s “Yiddish Musical Fantasy,” as it’s now subtitled, was written in Romania (where most of the action is set) in the late 1870s. Not long after, Jacob Adler, who would become one of the foremost Yiddish stars, as well as the father of theatre icons Stella Adler and Luther Adler, made his professional debut in it as Markus, the male romantic lead. The show became a popular Yiddish theatre standby for half a century, even being presented by Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theatre in 1925.
In 1989, The Witch, an English-language version, conceived, directed, and choreographed by Benjamin Zemach, was produced by the Jewish Repertory Theatre. Reportedly, about half the lyrics were in Yiddish, which added flavor without obstructing comprehension. Interestingly, Richard Shepard’s opinion in the Times comes close to my own for the current revival: “a Jewish theater experience, not quite bewitching, but a classically satisfying combination of folklore and performing arts.”
What that revival ignored, however, was the tradition, going back to the show’s beginning, of having a male actor play the title role in drag, a practice happily revived in the Folksbiene staging. The evil sorceress, or witch, known as Bobe Yakhne, is played with entertainingly broad strokes by Mikhl Yashinsky as a sort of colorfully exaggerated gypsy, who reveals that her real “magic” is her talent as a con artist.
Asked why everyone thinks she casts spells to gain her ends, she admits: “I only do that to cheat money out of the fools that believe in such things.” Nonetheless, a vivid scene at Bobe Yakhne’s home, with a Macbeth-like boiling cauldron and a coven of pretty sorcerer’s apprentices, offers ample opportunities for spell-casting dance and song.
In the simplistic, fairytale-like plot, Basye (an outstanding Botchan, once a regular of the now defunct Pearl Theatre company) marries the widowed Avromtshe (the always excellent Bruce Rebold, a physician turned actor), father of the pretty, blonde ingenue, Mirele (enchanting soprano Jazmin Gorsline). Mirele’s engaged to the handsome Markus (sweet-voiced tenor Josh Kohane). Seeking to take over the entire household, Basye conspires to have Avromtshe jailed, mistreats her stepdaughter, and then gets rid of her via a ruse devised by Bobe Yakhne.
In a delightful marketplace scene, where vendors musically entice customers to buy their wares (in tunes titled “Der Mark,” “Der Katsef,” “Koyft Zhe Koyft Daytshelekh,” “Heyse Babkelekh”), and where Hotsmakh the peddler short-counts a young woman buying pins, Mirele discovers she’s penniless (blame Bobe Yakhne).
Afraid to return home, she finds herself being sold into slavery to an organ grinder, ending up performing in an Istanbul (actually Constantinople back then, but you get the idea . . .) coffee house/cabaret. There, after we watch sword dancers and a Roma dancer (think belly dancer), Markus shows up, as does Hotsmakh (Steve Sterner), the peddler, traditionally considered the show’s most memorable character (Shepard refers to him as a shlimazel).
Back in Romania, the lovers and the peddler are in danger from their enemies, but the plans of those nefarious villains (including an accomplice named Elyokem [Jonathan Brody]) are no match for fate, which turns their plans to smoke as they discover the literal meaning of ashes to ashes. And, as all good romantic operettas should, a joyous wedding (this one under a chuppah, of course) leads to a buoyant musical finale in which the entire cast reminds us, “Hoorah, hoorah, all will be well.”
Despite its dramaturgical mishegas (a.k.a. craziness), The Sorceress is charming, with spirited, melodic music in the vein of traditional 19th-century operetta, brazen sentimentality and melodrama, and bold acting in the grand old manner. The production captures the artless feeling of the original, with a set by Dara Wishingrad mainly composed of series of elaborate false prosceniums, backed by a cyclorama lit in striking colors by Natalie Robin. Izzy Fields’s lovely period costumes add just the right visually appealing touch.
Jewish, shmewish, it makes no difference, as long as you don’t expect a repeat of Fiddler on the Roof, the Folksbiene’s remarkably successful revival, still running strongly uptown. But if you’re looking to rest your brain for 90 minutes while indulging in something sweet, schmaltzy, funny, and old-fashioned, with music both romantically lush and comically brisk, why not let the Folksbiene’s version of The Sorceress put a spell on you?
The Sorceress *****
Edward J. Safra Hall/National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene
36 Battery Place, NYC
Through December 29, 2019
Photography: Victor Nechay