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THEATER REVIEW

The language is Yiddish, the feelings are universal

The National Yiddish Theatre -- Folksbiene visits with a revival of its `On Second Avenue' revue.

February 23, 2007|F. Kathleen Foley | Special to The Times

It's historical. The National Yiddish Theatre -- Folksbiene, 92 years old and still thriving, is paying its first visit to Los Angeles.

It's an opportunity not to be missed. The group's acclaimed musical revue, "On Second Avenue," playing through Sunday at the University of Judaism's Gindi Auditorium, is a richly drawn valentine to the Yiddish theater, from its origins in Eastern European shtetls and beer cellars to its heyday on New York's Lower East Side.

Created by Moishe Rosenfeld and Zalmen Mlotek, the group's artistic director, "Avenue" is a lively blend of songs, scenes, vintage theatrical posters and even snippets of archival film footage, including an amazing clip of Sholom Aleichem performing a scene from a period melodrama. This production, which premiered in New York in the mid-1980s, features the cast from the 2005 off-Broadway revival.

Showbiz vet Mike Burstyn, whose parents, Lillian Lux and Pesach'ke Burstein, were stars of the Yiddish stage, spearheads the proceedings with the finesse of someone who was born in a trunk and has spent the bulk of his life on stage. One film clip shows Pesach'ke in a sombrero and serape performing the novelty number "Galitsyaner Cavalero." Burstyn then recapitulates the number in its entirety -- just one of the show's many touching tributes to Yiddish luminaries, now gone.

Burstyn also shines in the sublimely silly "Hootsatsa," dancing, singing and firing off fast-patter jokes of a hilariously awful stripe. Burstyn is well balanced by a uniformly terrific cast, which includes Joanne Borts, Lisa Fishman, Robert Abelson, Elan Kunin, Serena Wolman and the obviously pregnant Lisa Rubin, whose delicate condition only serves to emphasize the loving family atmosphere that prevails on stage. Buoyed by the toe-tapping rhythms of the Folksbiene klezmer band, each performer has an opportunity to shine.

Much of the show is in Yiddish, but supertitles are provided for the "Yiddish-challenged." Director Bryna Wasserman and choreographer Lorna Wayne perfectly reconfigure the show for the Gindi space, while musical director Alki Steriopoulos keeps the sound rich, full and energetic.

Not that the show is all fun and frolic, however. The first act culminates with the poignant musical medley about beloved cities left behind in the Jewish diaspora. Another almost unbearably touching moment is the child's lullaby, "Raisins and Almonds," soulfully performed by Borts. When the audience starts spontaneously singing along, it sends a thrill down the spine and assures us that the Folksbiene's mission to keep the grand tradition of Yiddish theater alive has been richly fulfilled here.

*

`On Second Avenue'

Where: Gindi Auditorium, University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel-Air

When: 1 p.m. today, 9:30 p.m. Saturday,

noon and 4:30 p.m. Sunday

Ends: Sunday

Price: $40 to $100

Contact: (877) 733-7529

Running time: 2 hours,

15 minutes

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