The Pirates of Penzance in Yiddish
nytheatre.com review by Lisa Ferber
March 25, 2007
This show is such a hilarious delight that I don't know where to begin. The National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene's presentation of Di Yam Gazlonim! (The Yiddish "Pirates of Penzance") kept a packed room full of theatergoers smiling for a full two hours (and probably the 15 minutes of intermission as well). Al Grand's warm and clever Yiddish adaptation (translated into easily readable English and Russian supertitles) is absolute genius, demonstrating a sincere love of the Yiddish language, Jewish humor, and Gilbert & Sullivan. Grand does not translate the book and lyrics exactly—he gets the jist of them, but changes enough to bring an additional sense of humor to the already wonderful original. This combined with Allen Lewis Rickman's top-notch direction (along with Rickman's very funny performance as the Chief of Police) result in a terrific time for everyone involved.
This is the story of a man named Fayvl who has come into young adulthood on a pirate ship with pirates Shmuel, Yankl, and Mendl, and the one woman aboard ship, Rivke. The pirates keep looking for someone to rob, but they can't rob orphans, and everyone they meet claims to be an orphan. There also is a love interest, Malke, played by the very talented Dani Marcus.
This show is far from being a one-note evening reliant on turning British names into Jewish names. It's about infusing this already funny story with a particular brand of humor. At one point young Fayvl tells the matronly Rivke "You're the only woman I've ever seen. Next to other women, how are you?" and Rivke replies, "My feet hurt sometimes. But otherwise, not bad."
Performances are brilliant throughout, with the cast demonstrating beautiful singing voices and a clear devotion to this project. I immediately researched Grand's work after seeing this show and discovered that the author/lyricist does indeed match every rhyme of his Yiddish version that the original lyricist W.S. Gilbert matched in the original English, including internal rhymes.
While Gilbert and Sullivan can demonstrate an awareness of Britishness in their songs, Grand infuses his with an awareness of Yiddishkeit (Jewish tradition and culture). He changes Gilbert's already terrific lyrics of "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General" from
I am the very model of a modern Major-General
I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical
to (in the English translation according to the supertitles)
I'm a major general and a good Jew too
My virtues are many....
I know Einstein, I bake fine honeycakes, and I know photography
....I dance the hora while playing the harmonica
Dialogue is equally splendid. Rivke refers to the pirates as "Just Yeshiva students who have lost their way." And here's an exchange that cracked me up: "Police work is not for Jews." "You got it—for a sensitive person, this job stinks."