A decade after winning an Oscar for his 1965 Holocaust masterpiece, “The Shop on Main Street,” the Hungarian Jewish director Jan Kadar filmed “Lies My Father Told Me,” a nostalgic story about an 8-year-old boy and his grandfather in 1920s Montreal. Some called Kadar the “messiah” of the Canadian film industry, propelling it to international attention and raising its standards. Indeed, “Lies,” based originally on a story by Ted Allan, went on to win major Canadian film prizes and to become a classic in its own right.
While its creators’ aspirations may not be quite so lofty, the new musical version of “Lies,” running through this weekend at The National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene, represents a bold attempt by the century-old company to reach out to an audience that does not speak Yiddish. But one wonders if the Folksbiene is losing its way by straying too far from its roots. As entertaining, well-acted, and clever as “Lies” often is, it is compromised by the thinness of the material and the lack of a robust connection to Yiddish culture.
Adapted and directed by the company’s executive director, Bryna Wasserman, the musical of “Lies,” which originated in Montreal with Theodore Bikel in the Tevye-like role of the old grandfather who teaches his grandson a thing or two about life, hews fairly closely to the film. The boy (Alex Dreier) loves nothing better than to accompany Zaida (Chuck Karel) on his horse-drawn cart as he goes through the interwar neighborhood selling old rags and recycling old bottles. But the boy’s father (Jonathan Raviv), who is trying to strike it rich by inventing creaseless pants and other newfangled garments, sees Zaida as a throwback to the Old World, and he denigrates both his father-in-law and the aging horse.
Abused by his father, and desperate for attention from his mother (Russell Arden Koplin), who has just given birth to his baby brother, the boy spreads horse manure on the steps of the family’s obnoxious next-door neighbor, a misdeed that propels the story toward its inevitable denouement in which modernity will assert its dominion over the old ways. Enhancing the musical’s emotional effectiveness is the presence of a narrator, an older and wiser David (Joe Paparella), who looks back wistfully on his childhood and draws lessons for the audience.
The contest between old and new is familiar territory for the Folksbiene, which for almost a century has presented plays dealing with uprooted Jewish immigrants trying, with mixed success, to transplant themselves in America. And “Lies,” which benefits from a tuneful score by the very talented young composer Elan Kunin and by a host of appealing performances, brings this conflict to life by showing the father’s desperation to move up in the world and make a better life for himself and his family. At the same time, the musical is clearly on the side of the glories of the past; one production number after another, beginning with the first song, “Rags, Clothes, Bottles,” showcases the shtetl-like life of the neighborhood, with its Jewish residents living close beside a French prostitute, Edna (Leisa Mather), the Irish next-door-neighbor, Mrs. Tanner (Renee Bang-Allen), and even an anonymous nun.
The problem is that the cozy shtetl-like neighborhood seems itself somewhat recycled from “Fiddler on the Roof,” yet without the same powerful evocation of the Jewish heritage. Collecting and peddling old scraps is, to be true, a traditional Jewish occupation — and, one could argue, a powerful metaphor for the Jew’s own outcast role in history — but it does not really work as the basis for a musical. Even the relationship between Zaida and Danny, as touching as it is, does not connect to any overarching ideas or themes; it is sentimental without being laden with significance.
The production also has its drawbacks. While the set, which revolves to shift from exterior scenes to domestic ones, is impressive, it is too large for the relatively small Baruch stage, and the cast members are obliged to circle awkwardly around each other. Merete Muenter’s choreography, perhaps also because of the lack of space, too frequently falls back on amateurish tricks like children doing cartwheels and actors running in place with their hands vertically chopping the air.
Musical director Michael Larsen does know when to pull the heartstrings with songs like “Magic Wings,” in which Young Danny and Zaida pretend to be soaring in a magical chariot over the neighborhood, and “Zaida’s Lullaby,” in which the grandfather bestows his blessing. And Wasserman’s device of using the older narrator pays great emotional dividends, especially at times when the older and younger versions of the character sing together, or when the older one comforts his younger self. Perhaps the most moving song in the show is “Ferdeleh,” when the two Dannys sing about their love for the horse that has been such a constant companion.
Still, I was never sure what audience this production was trying to reach. With an 8-year-old main character, it seemed like a family musical (the subtitle is “A Tender New Musical”), but there were only a dozen or so children in the audience (three of whom were my own.) This may be all for the best, given that the show frequently uses a four-letter word for the horse manure; it also contains a frank explanation by Zaida to Young Danny about why men suck on their wives’ nipples. This is all in the original play and film, and perhaps Canadians have a more relaxed, European (as opposed to our Puritan American) approach to sexual and scatological matters. But I could understand if some parents were uncomfortable.
What I missed most was the sound of Yiddish. I understand that there are fewer and fewer native Yiddish speakers in New York, and that, as much as younger Jews tend to define themselves in cultural rather than religious terms, learning to speak their great-grandparents’ immigrant language is not a priority. But the Folksbiene has a rich legacy to preserve, and doing shows in English, even ones that have a vaguely Jewish setting, is not something that the company is uniquely qualified to do. In March, the Folksbiene will bring back last year’s exuberant production of “The Megile of Itzik Manger,” which showcases the company at its best, and at its most immersed in the glorious Yiddish culture that “Lies My Father Told Me” only feebly evokes. Don’t miss it.
“Lies My Father Told Me” runs through this weekend at the Baruch Performing Arts Center. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. For tickets, $50-$60, call the box office at (646) 312-5072 or visit www.baruch.cuny.edu/bpac.