From 'Cabaret' to 'Borscht Capades'

May 15, 1994|By Hap Epstein | Hap Epstein,Cox News Service

Joel Grey is back in a familiar role -- master of ceremonies.

But don't look for the chalky face, bee-stung lips and smirking leer of the emcee of "Cabaret's" Kit Kat Klub, the part that brought him a Tony Award and an Oscar. This time around, it will be jugglers, ventriloquists and variety acts he will be introducing.

For Mr. Grey, it is a long way from "Wilkommen" to "And now, give a really Borscht Capades welcome." It is a journey full of personal memories, joy, laughs and a little sadness.

"Borscht Capades '94," which opens a one-week run at the Lyric Opera House Tuesday, is like opening up the multitalented performer's family album. It is a re-creation of the vaudeville shows that starred Mr. Grey's father -- the late Yiddish comic and clarinetist Mickey Katz.

More than 40 years ago, Katz crisscrossed the country with his klezmer band, the "Kosher Jammers." Klezmer, the rhythmic, raucous Eastern European music often heard at traditional Jewish weddings, was made even more raucous by Katz's song parodies. He would give pop tunes a Yiddish twist, resulting in such knee-slappers as "Herring Boats Are Coming with Bagels and Lox" and "Borscht Riders in the Sky."

The parodies were initially recorded in a studio, and their popularity spawned the live show. "The reasons that 'Borscht Capades' came into being was he was selling all these records, and audiences wanted to see him," says Mr. Grey, 62. "So he started to hire different acts. He sold tickets, he directed it, he decided the lineup and they put on a show."

In the same way, Mr. Grey has gathered a merry band of vaudevillians, culled from as far away as the Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco. On the bill are ventriloquist Gary Willner and his dummy Moskowitz, singer Judy Bressler, juggler Sarah Felder and comedian Jack Wakefield. They are backed by the internationally renowned, Boston-based Klezmer Conservatory Band.

As the show's star, Mr. Grey essentially plays his father. He has long included a tribute to Katz in his song-and-dance act, "no matter where it was, the White House or a concert hall." In "Borscht Capades '94," Mr. Grey adds that he will be doing things that his father never did, "because he was essentially a recording star and a musician. He would just stand there for the most part and just sing the songs. We're going to perform them, almost more like a novelty band."

Growing up in show business was an experience of extremes for Mr. Grey. He recalls the laughter and the excitement, but as he assembles this show, he also remembers the lean times. No overnight success, Katz toiled 22 years before breaking through to celebrity. "It was the hard life of a musician, trying to make a living," Mr. Grey says.

"And he worked the worst hours. We lived in Cleveland, and he'd have a date in Kentucky -- like a three- or four-hour drive -- which he drove for a one-nighter. He was one of the hardest-working people I've ever known. As a matter of fact, I used to think he worked too hard. It used to hurt me when he would come home from a band date and he would come home wet, because there was no place to change. And it would be cold outside."

Still, Mr. Grey knew from an early age that he wanted to be a performer. While he has enjoyed his greatest success in musicals, he originally resisted studying music. "I always sort of saw myself as different from a musician," he says. "Because I had this passion about being in the theater, Maybe it was a way of defining myself as opposed to him."

Yet at 16, there he was, singing and dancing in his father's revues. "Yes, but that was just because I wanted to work, not because I wanted to do that," Mr. Grey emphasizes. "I was scared to death."

Not long after, Mr. Grey was seen by the legendary Eddie Cantor, who picked him out of the Katz revue and put him on the Colgate Comedy Hour, and the son soon eclipsed the father. Katz's reaction? "I think he was always happy for me, but I think he missed me when I left," Mr. Grey says. "I think there was a sadness there."

Katz, who passed away in 1985, lived to see his son win the entertainment industry's highest awards and be acclaimed in plays from Anton Chekhov to John Guare. "When he saw me becoming a serious actor, I imagine he used to say to himself, 'Where did that come from?' "

In recent years, Mr. Grey has continued to shuttle between the stage and screen. He appeared off-Broadway in Larry Kramer's angry AIDS play, "The Normal Heart," and last year was featured at Connecticut's Hartford Stage in the offbeat, one-person musical, "Herringbone." He chooses movies more for the role than for the likely box office impact, and last appeared in the quirky, little-seen "Kafka and the Music of Chance."

In both media, Mr. Grey has not had a role that approaches the bravura showcase of the emcee in "Cabaret." He puts the blame on the collapse of the Broadway musical and on Hollywood casting directors with little imagination and short memories.

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