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‘Lies My Father Told Me’

Folksbiene tries something new; restages old movie

 
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In ‘Lies My Father Told Me,’ writer Ted Allan relives his Montreal childhood.

The 99-year-old Folksbiene, under the executive direction of Bryna Wasserman, has been trying a lot of new things lately.

This season, its mainstage production is a musical version of the 1975 Academy Award-nominated film “Lies My Father Told Me.” It’s based on a memoir by Ted Allan about his youth in 1920s Montreal. Wasserman, who previously ran the Segal Centre for the Performing Arts in Montreal, introduced the musical there in 2005. Allan’s memories took many forms: first a short story, it was then a radio play, and later a play with music. A straight dramatic version ran at New York’s Jewish Repertory Theater in 1986.

The show at the Baruch Performing Arts Center crowds a huge set onto the relatively small stage and then introduces a cast of 17 — the largest the Folksbiene has ever employed — to tell the unsurprising story of little David, his beloved Zaida, and his perennial-failure father, Harry. While Zaida is loyal to the old ways of Torah and humble work — he’s a rag and bottle man — Harry is constantly scheming to make a fortune.

His inventions, such as a permanent crease in men’s pants, never quite work, but that doesn’t discourage him. As long as he can convince his father-in-law to give him seed money, he keeps going. While the loving and kind-hearted Zaida represents the traditional Jewish world, the mercurial and mean Harry symbolizes the materialism and narcissism of the new.

I think I’ve seen a lot of old Yiddish movies with the same plot. Regardless, the Jews who came to North America quickly got rid of their old ways and joyfully embraced the new. Unfortunately, that’s too nuanced a view for “Lies My Father Told Me,” even though the character of the adult David as narrator could have added some subtlety.

The 16 songs by Elan Kunin, all in English, are tuneful, though not particularly memorable, and show little humor except for one funny number, “Bankrupt.” David is played by the energetic Alex Dreier; Chuck Karel plays Zaida, the role performed by Theodore Bikel in Montreal. Both Dreier and Karel do a fine job (Karel has a beautiful baritone voice), and there’s a lot of talent on stage. This Montreal street has a resident prostitute, an anti-Semitic Irish neighbor, a bunch of kids, a lovable Communist, and others, but the script does not provide enough for them all to do. There are some enjoyable dance numbers, which feel cramped by the tiny space. A smaller, simpler set might have given the production a bit of breathing room. Zaida’s horse, Ferdeleh, is invisible but seems real enough; other characters might have existed in our imagination, too.

One odd choice comes in the second act, after David’s mother has given birth to another son. Until now the show has been strictly PG, but suddenly David announces he wants to nurse just as his baby brother is doing. This leads to a comical conversation with Zaida that feels weirdly out of place, as if we had suddenly been dropped into another show. That could be entirely a personal reaction, but some people might feel uncomfortable bringing young children.

“Lies My Father Told Me” is a deeply Jewish show, no matter the language it is performed in, and for theatergoers who enjoy nostalgic reminiscences, the musical should be satisfying. The world of Montreal Jewry does not seem all that different from the Lower East Side in the 1920s — a lot of people torn between the old and the new, young people adapting to a very different culture, and children finding fun wherever they are.

 
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Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewish roots ‘very much intact’

At 80, Leonard Cohen fits many descriptions—singer, songwriter, poet, novelist, monk.

He also always has explored his spiritual side, beginning with his Jewish upbringing in Canada, and his search still is ongoing.

On May 8, the singer-songwriter released his latest album, “Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour,” on iTunes; the CD version was released on May 12. It features live recordings from his 2012 and 2013 world tours. Last year, Rolling Stone magazine’s readers rated Cohen’s “Popular Problems” as one of the 10 best albums of 2014.

Cohen was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Westmount—an English-speaking neighborhood of Montreal —in September 1934. His mother, Marsha Klonitsky, was the daughter of Rabbi Solomon Klonitsky-Kline, the author of “Otzar Taamei Hazal,” a work that examined biblical verses as cited in the Talmud. His paternal grandfather, whose family had emigrated from Poland, was Lyon Cohen, founding president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. On the topic of being a kohen (descendant of the ancient Jewish high priests), Leonard Cohen has said, “I had a very Messianic childhood.”

 

‘Tosca,’ ‘Carmina Burana’ take Masada

Fifth opera festival presents two masterpieces in the desert

The Fifth Masada Opera Festival — the largest international cultural event in Israel — gets under way this week, as two masterpieces are staged at the foot of the majestic UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Israeli Opera, which is celebrating its 30th season this year, will present “Tosca” by Giacomo Puccini and “Carmina Burana” by Carl Orff over the weekends of June 4 to 6 and June 11 to 13. There will be four performances of “Tosca” and two performances of “Carmina Burana.”

“Every year I remind myself that it all started with a fantastic dream that was hard to believe would come true,” the Israeli Opera’s general director, Hanna Munitz, said. “Now our festival takes shape for the fifth year, and this time we are privileged to stage not one, but two huge productions that are totally different from each other, on the same gigantic stage, which is rebuilt every year especially for the Opera Festival at the foot of Masada.”

 

‘2 by Wolf’

New Yiddish Rep introduces old British playwright

“The hunted are all on the same side,” says the old Jewish merchant in the first of two one-act plays by British writer Wolf Mankowitz, now Off-Off Broadway at The Cell, 338 West 23rd St.

The merchant is speaking to an Irish revolutionary who is hiding out in his upstairs shtiebel in Cork in the early 1920s. That sentiment is central to Mankowitz’s worldview, as it was to millions of left-leaning Jews in the twentieth century. Their perspective arose in a world where most Jews were poor, and in the way of the world were often crushed under the heels of those who were richer and more powerful.

New Yiddish Rep has adapted two plays by Mankowitz that show off his deep Jewish roots and his identification with the oppressed. In the first, “The Irish Hebrew Lesson,” the aforementioned revolutionary sneaks into the house where the old man is davening to hide from the Black and Tans, or British police, who are after him.

 

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‘2 by Wolf’

New Yiddish Rep introduces old British playwright

“The hunted are all on the same side,” says the old Jewish merchant in the first of two one-act plays by British writer Wolf Mankowitz, now Off-Off Broadway at The Cell, 338 West 23rd St.

The merchant is speaking to an Irish revolutionary who is hiding out in his upstairs shtiebel in Cork in the early 1920s. That sentiment is central to Mankowitz’s worldview, as it was to millions of left-leaning Jews in the twentieth century. Their perspective arose in a world where most Jews were poor, and in the way of the world were often crushed under the heels of those who were richer and more powerful.

New Yiddish Rep has adapted two plays by Mankowitz that show off his deep Jewish roots and his identification with the oppressed. In the first, “The Irish Hebrew Lesson,” the aforementioned revolutionary sneaks into the house where the old man is davening to hide from the Black and Tans, or British police, who are after him.

 
 
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