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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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Two opportunities to laugh

Stand-up comic, Israeli theater troupe perform in Manhattan

The next month offers theatergoers two chances to exercise their Jewish funny bones.

The performances represent different aspects of the Jewish humor tradition, but both succeed in making the audience laugh with delight. Brad Zimmerman’s “My Son the Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy” stands firmly in the Borscht Belt school of stand-up, and I mean that as a compliment. Although Zimmerman adds some poignant reminiscences of his parents, this show is built around jokes. Zimmerman has a laconic, deadpan delivery, just right for his story of moderate success, long delayed, and the audience at the Triad Theater, 158 West 72nd St., lapped it up.

 

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