For a moment—just a moment—the image in the spotlight connects to the generation far beyond our grandparents’. For a moment, the white-bearded Jew alone in his horse cart carries across the oceans of time to the generations of the eastern European shtetl. But this is early Twentieth Century Montreal, in a crowded neighborhood populated by bearers of immigrant dreams, a place where imagination is tempered by reality.
Lies My Father Told Me, a new musical based on the works of Ted Allan, adapted and directed by Bryna Wasserman and produced by the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene, is being presented as the main stage play of its 99th season (through December 15, 2013). Montreal-based composer/lyricist Elan Kunin provides 17 songs and dance production numbers, each of which adds to the emotional content and moves the production forward.
David the Adult (Joe Paparella) remembers the joys and sadness of his childhood, especially the touching love of the fantasies he shared with his old country Zaida (Chuck Karel) as they bought and sold rags, clothes and bottles, riding through the city on their horse-drawn wagon. Zaida guides and eases the child through family tensions, large and small crises, and yes, even provides a first explanation of the mysterious first stirrings of sex.
In a neighborhood not unlike those that were found in New York’s Lower East Side, a multi-generation Jewish family combines yesterday, today and the imagination of the future. Lies is a play of generational and social tensions, narrated by the older David remembering himself as David the Child (Alex Drier). At one unexpected moment, the two Davids embrace, unifying– if only for a moment—tearing at the heart. A tear may find its way to your cheek.
The seven-musician orchestra, barely visible behind the laundry on the line, provides sound with a timely honky-tonk tone. The full cast’s opening number, rendition of “Rags, Clothes, Bottles,” introduces the neighborhood, its character and its characters. It is a place of several generations, of pliers of trades, legal and not, children’s laughter and reminiscence tinged with sadness. The neigh of Ferdeleh, Zaida’s aged horse, heard or not, is certainly present. There is romance, life, birth and death. The prudish Mrs. Tanner (just wait!), the neighborhood ‘sweetheart,’ Edna, the boys and the girls, politicians and players all.
Each of Kunin’s melodies adds richness and content to the production: “Magic Wings,” a cross generational duet song by Zaida and David the Child clarifies their special relationship; Annie’s hopeful, resigned “Maybe Someday” touches the heart.
And there are lies: about relationships, reality, and reasons.
David’s father Harry (Jonathan Ravi) is appropriately unsympathetic. A slightly sleazy dreamer, the would-be serial inventor of “the next great thing,” abuses his pregnant wife Annie (Russell Arden Koplin), and denigrates her to her father (Zaida)—while constantly pleading for funding for one scheme or another. He inveigles his brother–in-law Benny into his schemes, and abuses his son when the child challenges his veracity.
Lies is exquisitely, excitedly produced. The sets are charming to the eye and technically effective. The cast, most who are members of Actor’s Equity, combines dialogue, music and dance in a wonderfully natural way. Every available inch of stage and set is used, making the production “feel” much larger than the limited space of the Baruch Performing Arts Center. Director Wasserman has produced this play about a Jewish, probably Yiddish-speaking family largely in English. She told the JLBC that the Folksbiene, now in its 99th season, is reaching out to the new generation. To judge by the multi-generational, multi-ethnic audience at the musical’s opening, her efforts are a success.
Baruch Performing Arts Center,
55 Lexington Avenue
Box Office 646 312 5073
By Maxine Dovere