How appropriate that the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre takes on the history of Yiddish theatre in its current show. The Folksbiene, celebrating its 90th season, is in itself history incarnate. The venerable company is the oldest continuously producing Yiddish theatre in the United States. And now, joining hands with Montreal's Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre (each the only remaining Yiddish theatre in its country), it has mounted a revival of "On Second Avenue," created originally by Moishe Rosenfeld and Zalmen Mlotek, the latter the Folksbiene's executive director.
While this lively Yiddish-English revue will appeal chiefly to Jewish audiences, it can be of interest to any theatre lover. Audiences who want that trip down memory lane will certainly be gratified, but overhead translations in English make the show accessible to all, however limited their knowledge of Yiddish.
The show features Mike Burstyn, along with Robert Abelson, Joanne Borts, Lisa Fishman, Elan Kunin, Lisa Rubin, and preteen actress Reyna Schaechter, in a series of songs, movement, and comic routines. Burstyn, who was born into Yiddish theatre (although he has made the crossover to Broadway and other mainstream entertainment), gets all the old-time comic shticks and songs. But his fellow performers fill out the chinks. The senior member of the troupe, Abelson, offers a fine, operatically trained voice undimmed by time, and Rubin is particularly fetching in a number of ingénue roles. But Borts, Fishman, and Kunin all offer solid professional support, and Schaechter has an appealing number as a little boy reluctant to attend Hebrew school.
Through song and talk, "On Second Avenue" traces Yiddish theatre from its 19th-century origins in Jassy, Romania, to its golden age in this country. Under the astute direction of Bryna Wasserman, artistic director of the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, the show has its moments of poignancy and yearning, but it never slows its pace.