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A CurtainUp Review

Yiddle With a Fiddle

I went to see the American Jewish Theatre's new version of Yiddle With a Fiddle knowing nothing about it other than that it starred Aileen Quinn in the role originally played in the 1936 movie Yidl Mitn Fidl* that made Mollie Picon famous. The minute the ensemble dressed in shades suggesting the sepia photos of the period, I had a sense that I was in good hands. When shortly after Yiddle (Aileen Quinn) tucked her hair into her cap and she and her father ( Philip Hoffman) set out for the life of traveling musicians hitching a ride with a young man I immediately recognized as Johnny Slade the magician in another small musical, The Portable Pioneer and Prairie Show, I crossed my fingers hoping that the magic of that show would hold for this one. Lo and behold, I soon recognized two other Pioneer actors, Sean McCourt as the romantic lead and Rebecca Rich as the waitress. When the lights went on for intermission, I was not surprised to see Pioneer director Lori Steinberg listed as the director in my Yiddle program.

If I seem to be spending a lot of time on another musical, it's because not only have its director and several cast members moved to the American Jewish Theatre's revival of the Yiddish movie, but both shows are very similar in spirit. Where the The Portable Pioneer and Prairie Show told of a group of American immigrants from Sweden who took to the road as musicians when they lost their farm, Yiddle With a Fiddle is set in Poland in 1936 at the height of the depression. It revolves around Yiddle, a young fiddler who tries to raise rent money from playing on the street and when she and her father are evicted from their home, they decide to become traveling musician. Unlike the Swedish immigrants who traveled as a family and in a wagon, these Polish itinerants walk and hitchhike on the open road which prompts Yiddle to dress as a boy for safety's sake. This being a musical comedy, the disguise also leads to romantic complications when Yiddle and her father team up with two other musicians, Kalamutke (Mark Lotito) and Froym, played by the above-mentioned (Sean McCourt). There are enough additional plot and romantic twists to keep things bubbling with the songs from the musical score by Abraham Ellstein, lyrics by Isaiah Sheffer, plus additional music and arrangement by Lanny Meyers.

If Aileen Quinn, Sean McCourt and Regina O'Malley seem odd choices for a musical which, even in English and with some modernizing, is very much in the tradition of the era of Yiddish theater in America, not to worry. While Quinn is not as dynamic and big-voiced a Yiddle as one could hope for, she is a sincere and attractive performer and shines in a number called "Hard As a Nail." Sean McCourt has a strong voice and is an engaging actor. Too bad all the instruments are fake wooden props, since he is also a fine instrumentalist. As for Regina O'Malley who plays Channa, she simply couldn't be better. Her "Stay Home With Me" is one of the show's big standout numbers. Mark Lotito as the marriage-shy object of her affections is equally good, not just in this duet, but throughout. Philip Hoffman, Samuel D. Cohen, Mickey Nugent, Rebecca Rich, Leslie Feagan, and Julie Ellis ably round out the ten-member cast, several smoothly filling multiple roles.

Moving such a large cast around the small and awkward stage of the American Jewish is no mean feat, but director Lori Steinberg has met the challenge as well as can be expected. If the cartoonlike wooden set pieces seem amateurish at first, they actually work quite well and the audience seemed to get a kick out of the single-table wagon that metamorphoses into a limousine and a train with the addition of several tables. The scrim at the back of the stage, is also a very modest affair, but it too manages to do its job

With the thematic and cast connections between this show and the other small musical I recommended so highly earlier in the season a comparison between the two is inevitable. What it boils down to is that this Yiddle With a Fiddle provides a charming contemporary look at a by-gone entertainment genre but is an unlikely candidate for a move to Broadway. The Portable Pioneer Prairie Show, on the other hand, could have made the transition. If it had, it might have held its own next to some of the glitzier mega hits currently duking it out in the Broadway musical chairs game.

Stanley Brechner the American Jewish Theatre's artistic director, is to be applauded for bringing this musical gem back to life and with such an enthusiastic team of artists. When you consider that Hitler was already on the march in 1936, the happy ending is bittersweet. So much more reason to celebrate the spirit of the many talented musicians who were so sadly silenced just a few years later! ©right May 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
*The original Yiddish language Yidl Mitn Fidl is available on video cassette. The film was also a big draw at the Yiddish film retrospective held at the Museum of Modern Art a few seasons ago.

based on the 1936 film
book and lyrics by Isiah Sheffer
music by Abraham Ellstein
starring Aileen Quinn
directed by Lori Steinberg
American Jewish Theatre, 307 W. 26 St. (212) 633-9797.
Opening date 5/11//97; closing date 5/25/97

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