Grey's 'Borscht' a merry, if stiff, tribute

May 19, 1994|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special to the Sun

When "Borscht Capades '94" bills itself as a "vaudeville gone meshugah," you know you're in for madly whirling klezmer music, surreal send-ups of the popular songs of yesteryear and comedy skits older than the hills (namely, the Catskills).

This show is a generous ladling of Yiddish entertainment, but it's also a heartfelt tribute by master showman Joel Grey to his father, the late musician and comedian Mickey Katz.

If the latter name doesn't ring a bell, clarinet or, for that matter, any other novelty band instrument, you may have trouble emotionally connecting to some of the nonsense and sentiment on stage at the Mechanic Theater through this weekend. Likewise, if your sense of Yiddishkeit doesn't extend beyond being able to order in a deli, some of the zany mixture of English and Yiddish delivered with such zest in "Borscht Capades" may leave you longing for United Nations-style simultaneous translation.

Not that "Borscht Capades" isn't capable of tickling the universal funny bone. After all, Mickey Katz was an international of sorts. Following a formative stint in the Spike Jones band, he became a minor recording star in the '50s and '60s by spoofing the hit parade of the day. His Yiddish-izing of songs such as "Home on the Range" amounted to a comic expression of the fertile merger of Old World Yiddish culture and the New World American cultural mainstream. And American life or, at any rate, life in Las Vegas nightclubs hasn't been the same since.

Joel Grey, who performed as a teen-ager with his dad and went on to perfect his own music hall skills in "Cabaret," is just the guy to resurrect this particular cabaret form. When the ever-spirited Mr. Grey comes out dressed as a cowboy dude at the Bar Mitzvah Ranch, it's amusingly clear that the whole American entertainment landscape is fair game.

Soon he has left the ranch and reappears wearing a raccoon hat to sing one of his father's silly signature songs, "Duvid Crockett," which again puts a Jewish spin on the saga of settling this continent. Heck, he takes on other continents, too, later transforming the Latino "Tico Tico" into "Tickle, Tickle."

When he isn't delivering his father's songs, Mr. Grey serves as master of ceremonies for a lineup of mostly young performers recalling the performance styles of their parents' and grandparents' day.

There's Sara Felder, who juggles a bowling ball, a butcher knife, a bagel and comic lines. The onstage klezmer band, the New Kosher Jammers, is especially effective backing her, what with a clarinet-driven musical frenzy urging her on.

There's Betty Silberman, a vocalist whose all-Yiddish tunes won some nods of recognition from the crowd. She's got a good DTC voice and knows there are times to sing straight and not in a facetious way.

There's Gary Willner and "Moskowitz," who are, respectively, a ventriloquist and his dummy. Whether impersonating Perry Como or insulting the crowd, they tap right into agreeably familiar comic patter.

And there's one old-timer, the portly comedian Jack Wakefield, whose ethnic jokes are as loud as his red jacket. His jokes are right out of the '50s and hence not the sort of stuff you hear on stage much in the politically correct '90s. Unfortunately, his timing is a tad off, like an old pro who could use a tune-up.

In fact, the show as a whole seems a bit forced. The performers work hard at having a good time and need to swing into the frivolity with more natural ease. Maybe that's why "Borscht Capades" isn't quite as much fun as "Catskills on Broadway," which invoked the innocent craziness of that era more vividly.

'BORSCHT CAPADES'

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. today through Saturday, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $20-$40

$ Call: (410) 625-1400

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