nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 30, 2008
The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene begins its 94th (!) consecutive season in New York with a premiere—the musical Gimpel Tam, adapted by Moshe Yassur from Isaac Bashevis Singer's short story of the same name, with songs by Radu Captari.
This is, perhaps, a curious choice of material; though Singer's tale of the odyssey of a sweet-natured naif takes place in an Old World shtetl that reminds us of the world of Sholem Aleichem and Fiddler on the Roof, the themes of Gimpel Tam are dark and difficult and not a little bitter. Gimpel is an orphan who becomes a baker. From childhood on, he is the laughingstock of his village, because his gullibility is apparently boundless and he is easy to trick and manipulate. When he becomes a man, a matchmaker pairs him with Elke, a woman of loose character who is regarded as the town whore. Even Gimpel knows this about her, but when he goes to meet her he falls head-over-heels in love, and he proceeds with the marriage.
In a more traditional musical comedy, Gimpel's love for Elke would soften her and redeem her. But Singer's motives here are much darker, and Yassur is faithful to his source material. I don't want to give too much away, but poor Gimpel is tested nearly like Job, to prove that blind and unconditional faith may be the path through human suffering to godliness.
These ideas don't lend themselves that readily to song and dance, and indeed as Gimpel Tam progresses the joyfulness of its musical numbers dwindles. But many of Captari's songs are delightful, and they feel authentic as performed by the Folksbiene's four-piece band—clarinet, violin, accordian, and bass—under the direction of Zalmen Mlotek. Many of the best numbers are assigned to a quartet of Gimpel's fellow villagers, four men who taunt and tease our hero and then remind us that life is short and hard in songs like "Lomir Trinkn a Glezl Vayn (Let's Drink a Glass of Wine)" and "Ot Azoy Dreyt Zikh S'Reydl (The Wheel Turns)." (This four-man chorus is composed of Jonathan Brody, Ethan Sher, Richard Kass, and Ilan Kwitken.) A chorus of three women, performed by Amy Goldstein, Lisa Fishman, and the formidable Sheila Rubell, are assigned a similar song—a long piece about the commonsensical wisdom of their local rabbi called "Keyner Hot Nisht Ale Mayles (No One Has All Virtues)" that is one of the show's highlights.
Adam Shapiro and Daniella Rabbani play Gimpel and Elke, and their portrayals are limited by the simplistic nature of their roles: Gimpel is an innocent while Elke is an opportunist, with little shading allowed to either. Harry Peerce plays a couple of characters, including the possibly deceitful matchmaker, and Folksbiene stalwart I.W. Firestone shines as both Gimpel's grandfather and the rabbi. Folksbiene assistant director Motl Didner has a cameo as a demon who tries to tempt Gimpel from his true path.
The production values are modest but well-realized, especially Roger Hanna's simple but versatile set. The pace sometimes feels a little sluggish, though, under Yassur's direction. The production is performed entirely in Yiddish with English and Russian supertitles projected above the action on stage.