As part of the repertoire for its entry into its 25th anniversary year, Yiddishspiel has revived the great musical comedy classic Yidl Mitn Fidl (Yiddle With His Fiddle). The musical was made famous in 1936 with a film of same name that was shot in Warsaw and starred Molly Picon in the title role.
The current Yiddishspiel production has generated more buzz than usual, largely due to the fact that veteran actor and comedian Tuvia Tsafir is one of the lead members of the cast.
Tsafir is the son of Polish immigrant parents who spoke Yiddish at home when they didn’t want him to understand what they were saying. He says he heard the language frequently but he never really picked up on it. Now, at age 68, he’s playing in Yiddish for the first time, and has had few issues picking up the language. Because Tsafir is such a brilliant mimic, it is hard to believe he is acting at all.
Rather, watching him on stage is almost like eavesdropping on a conversation. He fits the role of the wandering klezmer minstrel perfectly.
Tsafir delivers his lines with the glibness of someone who has been speaking Yiddish all his life. Unlike many Yiddish-speaking Polish Jews, his accent is more Lithuanian than Galician, but there’s nothing phony about it. Throughout the intermission-free 100-minute performance, he maintains the kind of verve to which we’ve become accustomed for over 40 years.
Although Tsafir is billed as the star of the show, the true star is Irma Stepanov, who plays the title role of Yidl. She sings, she dances, she prances, but in contrast to Tsafir, it is obvious that she is acting, though she certainly does it well.
Tsafir has the gift of fitting into a part like a hand into a glove.
Special mention must also be made of the cameo role of Hannah, the Warsaw-based woman whom Kalimutka wants to marry.
Marina Ya’akobovitz, who plays Hannah, is a talented all-rounder who takes on her role with tremendous courage, knowing in advance that the audience may laugh with her, but is more likely to laugh at her because of her ungainly figure. This is not meant unkindly – on the contrary, actors and actresses all over the world often profit from physical features that are not exactly mainstream or streamlined. They are not looking to be stars. They much prefer to be special characters. Furthermore, Ya’akobovitz is actually surprisingly light on her feet.
The show is in the best tradition of Yiddish vaudeville. It does have a storyline, but the variety of the songs and the lack of a uniting tie between the numbers creates the impression of a series of variety acts that have been brought together on a common denominator.
It would not really be a spoiler to disclose the plot, given that it is so transparent from start to finish.
Yidl is actually a female street musician, singer and dancer, who plays the violin. Her father Arieh, portrayed by Israel Treistman, a veteran of the Yiddish stage, plays the bass. The impoverished pair wanders through Poland to pick up a few grosz here and there, and occasionally even a couple of zlotys.
Their greatest luxury is to eat a herring. They don’t mind their lifestyle, but the problem is that dirty old men are forever making passes at Yidl, so she decides to assume a male identity.
In their wanderings, father and daughter come across another somewhat more successful pair of street musicians, Kalimutka and his young sidekick Froyim, played by Erez Regev. For the two young people, it is attraction at first sight, but Yidl has to keep her emotions in check for fear that her true identity will be discovered.
One night, when they are all at an inn, Yidl drunkenly passes out, and Froyim carries her back to their makeshift accommodation. She wakes up briefly and kisses him full on the mouth. Froyim finds this very disturbing, but not necessarily because he still regards Yidl as a male. After a series of adventures, Yidl’s true identity is revealed, and Froyim proposes to her. “I liked you as a boy, but I like you even more as a girl,” he tells her.
Unlike some of its predecessors, which were laborious and slow, the current production is fastpaced with a lot of zing, largely due to the direction of Eleanor Reissa, who has come from Broadway to Yiddishspiel on previous occasions. At various stages in her theatrical career, Reissa has been an actress, dancer, singer, choreographer, director and songwriter on both the English and the Yiddish stage. In an interview on Israel Radio, Tsafir said it was a joy to work with her.
Some of the tunes in the production were familiar to the audience in the Jerusalem Theater and they enthusiastically clapped their hands in time to the music and joined in the chorus. The musical director was David Krivoshey and Tzachi Patish was responsible for the choreography.
Performances are scheduled to continue until at least mid-August Arison at the Theater Hall in Tel Aviv. There will also be performances in Netanya, Ashdod, Or Akiva, Holon, Kiryat Motzkin, Herzliya, Givatayim and Rishon Lezion.
The 25th anniversary year will culminate with an international Y.L. Peretz Festival in March 2015 with actors, singers and musicians performing in many languages including Russian, French, Italian and Polish, plus various lectures on different aspects of Jewish culture, with the emphasis on Yiddish culture.
In the interim, Yiddishspiel will present two productions, the first of which, Der Revizor, based on The Inspector General by Nikolai Gogol, will premiere in October and will feature Mike Burstyn and Yaakov Bodo. Der Revizor is directed by Tzedi Tzarfati with music by Dubi Zeltzer.
In January 2015, the acclaimed Israeli play Mikve by Hadar Galron, will begin its Yiddish season.
In April, following the International Peretz Festival, Yiddishspiel will present a musical Gypsy Soul, and in June, Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple will conclude the silver anniversary season.
Yiddish theater fans can save money by taking out a NIS 200 subscription that enables them to see four productions at no extra charge.