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Reviews

Songs of Paradise

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Presented by Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre at Theater Four, 424 W. 55 St., NYC, Oct. 31-Dec. 23.

The Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre is back this year with a revival of "Songs of Paradise," a spoof on the Book of Genesis. Though much of the material is sheer corn, this team makes it work. Avi Hoffman, Eleanor Reissa, and Zalmen Mlotek, all artists of the first order, have put their imprimatur on the show. Hoffman directs, and Reissa and Mlotek (co-artistic directors of Folksbiene) offer the choreography and musical direction, respectively.

Moreover, the book (by Miriam Hoffman and Rena Borow) gets solid help from the noted Yiddish poet Itsik Manger (who is credited with the lyrics). And Rosalie Gerut's diverting score runs the musical gamut from rock to gospel to klezmer.

The broad humor gets downright silly at times. The opening scene, for instance, features an Adam in flowered shirt and sunglasses, lying on a deck chair, and a childish Eve capering about in a wrinkled body suit. Cowboy outfits, Trader Joe shopping bags, Groucho Marx, and the Three Stooges are all shamelessly thrown into the stew.

But no matter. Spencer Chandler, Jake Ehrenreich, Lia Koch, Yelena Shmulenson-Rickman, and Theresa Tova carry it off with comic zest. They never miss a beat as they switch roles and change wigs, costumes, and personae in a flash. A Yiddish "Forbidden Broadway," you might say. But there are also times when the shtick gives way to haunting ballads.

"Songs of Paradise" is a revival in more than one sense. The show made its Off-Broadway debut in 1989, but this current production has antecedents that reach back in time. It recalls the Purimshpiel, holiday celebrations which began in the Middle Ages and launched the Jewish theatre. This production, like the Purimshpiel, has the players themselves set up shop. Throughout the play, they combine simple props and sets, drawing a makeshift curtain back to reveal each new scene.

It is all so amiable, informal, and energetic that one forgives the Folksbiene show its excesses and inanities.

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