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'The Golden Bride' - A Sterling Revival of a 1923 Confection

Adam B. Shapiro and company in The Golden Bride
(© Ben Moody)

One of the most delightful theatrical surprises for the end of 2015 comes courtesy of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. It’s the 1923 operetta The Golden Bride, now playing at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park.

The confection—with a lighter-than-air score by Joseph Rumshinsky, a charming libretto by Frieda Freiman, and slyly funny lyrics by Louis Gilrod (performed mostly in the original Yiddish with English and Russian supertitles)—essentially takes period uptown romantic musical comedy tropes and transfers them to a milieu that would have appealed to Lower East Side audiences of the day. The result is a slightly loopy and always lovely sounding show that also happens to be a great example of cultural appropriation.

The action begins on a shtetl in Russia, where the community is abuzz over the fact that a young woman, Goldele (Rachel Policar), raised by adoptive parents, an innkeeper Pinchas (Bruce Rebold) and his wife, Toybe (Lisa Fishman), has just come into an amazing fortune. Her recently deceased father, who had been living and working in America, has left the millions he earned there to her. All of the local young men are vying for Goldele’s hand, but there’s only one whom she loves, Pinchas and Toybe’s son, Misha (Cameron Policar).

Because Misha reciprocates Goldele’s love, happily ever after should be a quick and foregone conclusion for the couple, but a bit of caprice on her part means that they have to wait a while to reach it. Goldele won’t marry until her long-lost mother is found, and the only man she’ll marry is the one who finds the woman.

As Misha and the other suitors set off to scour the globe on the quest Goldele has set for them, she heads to America with her Uncle Benjamin (Bob Ader) and cousin Jerome (Glenn Seven Allen) and settles into a life of luxury. Other members of the shtetl travel alongside her. Pinchas and Toybe, who receive a million dollars as payment for having raised Goldele, settle into a nouveau riche existence in Manhattan and attempt to assimilate. They also bring their daughter, Khanele (Jillian Gottlieb), who’s smitten with Jerome, and these two dream of a life as stage performers. The other Russian who makes a new life in the U.S. is Kalmen (Adam B. Shapiro), the local matchmaker, who pursues a similar career once stateside.

While Act 1 romanticizes life in Russia as a bucolic heaven, Act 2 glamorizes what life in New York could be for the fortunate. Adding welcome heft to both halves of the show are songs that bring social awareness into the story. The first act opens with a number that lyrically sounds as if Marc Blitzstein might have penned it, even as the music remains utterly sparkling. When Toybe sings the query “Who has the greatest possible power today?,” the chorus responds, “The dollar, oh, oh, the dollar.”

Similarly, in Act 2, after Misha’s travels across the world in search of Goldele’s mother, he delivers an aria, “A Greeting From the New Russia.” It’s a piece that both lauds and laments the changes the country has undergone subsequent to the revolution.

Impressively, co-directors Byrna Wasserman and Mott Didner’s handsome staging allows these two more serious sections of the show to live comfortably within the otherwise gossamer piece. More important, the directors have ensured that the actors, backed by a 14-piece orchestra led by music director Zalmen Mlotek, never condescend to the material. From Shapiro’s Kalmen listing the sorts of husbands that he can get for the plethora of maids that attend Goldele and her uncle in New York to Allen’s goofily goyishe Jerome and Gottlieb’s sweetly starry-eyed Khanele imagining their lives on stage, the performers deliver the show’s highest bits of comedy with sensitivity and zest.

Policar and Johnson, playing the central couple, are equally adept with regard to the show’s airier moments, and they also sound superb. Her delicate soprano and his commanding tenor serve Rushinsky’s lush melodies beautifully, and when their voices combine the effect is sublime.

A top-notch physical production completes the picture for this sterling rejuvenation of The Golden Bride. John Dinning’s latticework-framed set proves equally apt for both the Russian and American halves of the show, Izzy Fields’ colorful costume design has period flair, and Yael Lubetzky’s lighting design appears to twinkle as much as the delectable material.

---- Andy Propst

The Golden Bride plays at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (36 Battery Place). For more information and tickets, visit: nytf.org.