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The Adventures of Hershele Ostropolyer
The folk hero is based on a man who lived in Ukraine during the late 18th or early 19th centuries and eventually became a kind of court jester to Rabbi Boruch of Medzhybizh. While in myths Hershele took on the rich establishment to champion the poor, in reality his job was to pacify the rebbe, who was notorious for his fiery temper.
In The Adventures of Hershele Ostropolyer by Moyshe Gershenson, Hershele's mission is to help Berl get back a ring from the miserly pawnbroker, Reb Kalmen, so he can marry his beloved Tsipke. The ring once belonged to her departed grandmother who will not bless the wedding from her heavenly abode while it is still in Kalmen's hands.
For The National Yiddish Theatre — Folksbiene's spring production (performed in Yiddish with English and Russian supertitles), the musical has been adapted by Eleanor Reissa (who also directs and choreographs). The score is updated by Chana Mlotek, music archivist at YIVO. Nimmy Weisbrod plays Berl, while Dani Marcus (whose tremendous voice we should hear more often) takes on the role of Tsipke. But the big name in the show is Mike Burstyn, who plays the lovable rascal with great zest and a fine sense of Yiddish irony.
Burstyn, the son of Yiddish-speaking actors Pesach Berstein and Lillian Lux, performed in Yiddish theater as a child, and theater with Jewish themes has played an important part in his adult career which includes The Rothchilds and Lansky). But if Burstyn brings in the audience, he also lifts up the show. He sings, dances and dispenses a great deal of Yiddish wisdom and humor. He is at his best with songs like Today I Have a Meal and My Poor Coat, an ode to his tattered mantle.
The cast also includes the excellent I.W. "Itzy" Firestone (now in his 34th year with the Folksbiene) as Reb Kalmen and the effervescent Daniella Rabbani as Kalmen's long-suffering maid, Dvoshe. Lori Wilner is Genendl who, with her husband Zaydl (Steve Sterner) runs the town inn, which Hershele targets for the site of the young couple's wedding.
The score, played by a band directed by Dmitri "Zisl" Slepovitch includes material from a mid-1950s Workmen's Circle production, but also includes original tunes and updated lyrics. It is filled with the caution, joy and resignation of traditional klezmer melodies. Rather than try to recreate the European shtetl, Roger Hanna has given his set a fairytale quality that reminds one of those used for children's puppet shows — with a revolving door for quick exits and entrances and windows that open to reveal characters both living and deceased.
Hershele's strategy for getting Kalmen to give back the ring is to convince the miser that he is going crazy. To do this Hershele uses his wits and his charm. But he has no thought of personal gain, despite the fact that he often doesn't know where he will get his next meal.
As for the young couple, unlike those in traditional fairytales, they do not want to be rich or royal. They just want to get married. Indeed, the world of Yiddish folklore is a place of limited goals and unbounded entertainment.