So you don't understand Yiddish, you'll still enjoy this warm-hearted revue

June 06, 1991|By J. Wynn Rousuck

Just before intermission in the joyous Yiddish-English revue, "Those Were the Days," a puff of smoke wafts in from the wings, and actress Eleanor Reissa announces that she has just seen her first train. The train symbolizes the immigration of European Jews to America. As she waves goodbye, Ms. Reissa says, "We go, but we will always remember."

Remembering is at the heart of this five-person revue, conceived and compiled by Zalmen Mlotek and Moishe Rosenfeld, and now playing a two-week run at Center Stage. The first act conjures up rose-colored memories of life in the small European Jewish communities known as shtetls. The second conveys the ebullience of New York's Yiddish music halls.

True, shtetl life was probably not always as jolly as it is portrayed here. And music hall stages were unquestionably more populous than this one -- which is also devoid of scenery. But klezmer music has rarely sounded better than it does in the hands of the Golden Land Klezmer Orchestra, and particularly clarinetist Howard Leshaw.

Primarily, of course, "Those Were the Days" is about remembering the dying language of Yiddish. Much of the show, and most of the songs, are performed in Yiddish, which makes it a rather specialized presentation. But even if you are unfamiliar with this amalgam of German, Hebrew, Polish, Russian, etc., this warm-hearted revue will leave you brimming with thoughts of grandparents and holidays and the riches of being surrounded by family, riches which are rarer and rarer as families become more and more dispersed.

Unquestionably, a large part of this little show's success -- it ran for 19 weeks on Broadway and was nominated for two Tony Awards -- stems from its ability to transport us back to "those days."But equally significant are the spirited performances of the talented Broadway cast, which is now touring with the show throughout North America.

Whether singing, dancing or performing comedy, Bruce Adler, a third-generation Yiddish theater performer, is as irrepressible as his wide grin; there's nothing quite like the Yiddish blarney he displays in a sketch called "Yiddish International Radio Hour," in which he sings Yiddish lyrics with an Irish accent.

Similarly exotic is an all-Yiddish rendition of Figaro's aria from "The Barber of Seville" by Robert Abelson, a practicing cantor whose credits include the New York City Opera, as well as a stint as a singer at a Romanian restaurant on the Lower East Side.

The aforementioned Ms. Reissa, who also directed and choreographedthe production, brings comic flair to her brief narrative segments in the first act, but she also sings a tearfully affecting "My Yiddishe Mama." And, when Ms. Reissa and Lori Wilner team up with Mr. Adler in "Bei Mir Bistu Schoen," the joint really jumps.

But the bit that'll tickle you to your ethnic core -- your stomach -- is a sketch based on a story by Sholom Aleichem. Mr. Adler portrays a starving customer in a restaurant run by Mina Bern, another veteran Yiddish performer, whom moviegoers will recognize from Barry Levinson's recent film, "Avalon." As Ms. Bern details the delicious dishes that aren't available, Mr. Adler grows wearier and wearier with hunger. By the time he passes out, Ms. Bern's descriptions have made you so hungry that you, too, could collapse from longing for a bowl of matzo ball soup.

"Those Were the Days" continues at Center Stage through June16; call 332-0033.

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