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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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Shlomo Carlebach musical has the soul to heal frayed race relations

The cracks that had been simply painted over for so long began to show in Ferguson, Mo., in November 2014, but in truth they had begun to open wide much earlier—on Saturday, July 13, 2013. That is when a jury in Sanford, Fla., acquitted George Zimmerman of culpability for the death of a 17-year-old black man, Trayvon Martin. The cracks receded from view over time, as other news obscured them.

Then came the evening of August 9, 2014, when a young white Missouri police officer named Darren Wilson shot and killed another black teenager, 18-year-old Michael Brown. In November, a grand jury declined to indict Wilson for the teenager’s death. Parts of Missouri went up in flames as frustrated and angry men, women, and teenagers took to the streets to express their outrage and their disbelief. The grand jury’s decision confirmed for them that the justice system in America continues to fail black communities, and that racism still motivates many in white America today.

 

SuperBowl kosher halftimeshow features Soulfarm

 

From the heart

The Hot Club of Cowtown’s Jewish roots

There is some music that comes from a violin — music that is sad or yearning or fierce or mournful or forgiving or pleading or frantic — that bypasses the brain and goes right to the heart and soul.

Sometimes that music can cross cultural divisions, defy expectations, and mock stereotypes.

That might be why Elana James, a nice Jewish girl from the suburbs of Kansas City, is one of the founders of Hot Club of Cowtown, a trio that will bring western swing, jazz, gypsy, and eastern European music to Mexicali Live in Teaneck on March 14 at 8 p.m., as it has brought it to clubs and theaters around the world for nearly 20 years now.

“I’ve played violin since I was 4,” Ms. James said. “I’ve always felt that it is a very Jewish thing.

 

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From the heart

The Hot Club of Cowtown’s Jewish roots

There is some music that comes from a violin — music that is sad or yearning or fierce or mournful or forgiving or pleading or frantic — that bypasses the brain and goes right to the heart and soul.

Sometimes that music can cross cultural divisions, defy expectations, and mock stereotypes.

That might be why Elana James, a nice Jewish girl from the suburbs of Kansas City, is one of the founders of Hot Club of Cowtown, a trio that will bring western swing, jazz, gypsy, and eastern European music to Mexicali Live in Teaneck on March 14 at 8 p.m., as it has brought it to clubs and theaters around the world for nearly 20 years now.

“I’ve played violin since I was 4,” Ms. James said. “I’ve always felt that it is a very Jewish thing.

 

Still your bubby’s Yiddish

Just a bit louder

Somehow, it seems a bit incongruous to see the words Yiddish and rock in the same sentence.

It’s even more startling to hear the phrase Yiddish rock. Still, says Jeffrey Shandler — a professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers and a scholar of contemporary Yiddish culture — that genre of music not only exists but is thriving.

“There’s a tendency to think of the history of the language as ending, or starting to die out, with the Holocaust,” Dr. Shandler said. “That’s not the case. What changed was who uses the language, and how.”

To demonstrate its use in the musical arena, Rutgers’ department of Jewish studies has joined with the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life at Rutgers to bring the rock band Yiddish Princess to campus on March 10 to perform a free concert.

 

HaZamir gala benefit concert

 
 
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