Fyvush Finkel Live!
nytheatre.com review by David Johnston
October 20, 2010
At the age of 88, Fyvush Finkel has had an enviable career spanning most of the twentieth century. From roles in the Yiddish theaters and vaudevilles of Second Avenue to a five-year run in the original production of Little Shop of Horrors and an Emmy for Picket Fences, Finkel is a living, mugging, singing, shticking treasure. In his career look-back at Baruch Performing Arts Center, Fyvush Finkel Live!, Finkel shows clips of himself as a young comic in Yiddish movie musicals, resurrects hoary Catskill bits, reminisces about such forgotten heroes as Boris Thomashevsky and Maurice Schwartz, and tosses off gems like Yiddish-English versions of "When the Saints Go Marching In," "Once in Love with Amy," and "Ikh Bin a Border (I Am A Boarder for My Wife)." Fyvush Finkel Live!, while not without its occasional groaners, is a delight.
At one time, the Yiddish theatres of New York were a force. Theatre and film actors such as Paul Muni, Molly Picon, and Morris Carnovsky came from its stages. The formidable Stella Adler, one of the most influential acting teachers of the last century, was the daughter of Jacob Adler, a star of the Yiddish theatre. But with assimilation into American culture, the children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants shed the entertainments of their parents. Thankfully, there is the National Yiddish Theatre - Folksbiene Theater to preserve and celebrate this immigrant art form, a theatre that allowed its audiences to celebrate their culture and cope with the anxieties of becoming American. Much of the Yiddish theatre was "art theatre"—Ibsen, Shakespeare and writers like Sholem Aleichem and S. Ansky. But the Yiddish-speaking audiences also loved their low-down vaudeville—the blackout sketches, sentimental ballads, and parody numbers. Finkel is most definitely planted here, not in the drawing rooms of Ibsen.
And if you love live music, this is one of the best bands in New York right now. Elliot and Ian Finkel, the sons, lead a combo that rips into klezmer-inflected show tunes, with the occasional rumba or salsa. Ian is a dazzling vibraphonist, and gives up a showy rock-star rendition of "Romania." Indeed, one of the great pleasures of this evening is watching the Finkel family tear into material that's clearly part of their DNA. Their relish is infectious.
And Finkel. Finkel. His face is too big, his mouth is too wide and his eyes bulge. It's a face made for takes. His mind is an awesome laugh-getting machine. Finkel is aided and abetted by June Gable, who belts out "Sammy, the Bar Mitzvah Boy," and Merwin Goldsmith, who heads a hilarious sketch as the "noted British Yiddish translator, Somerset Mogen." While some bits could go (a silly Dracula shtick would be at top of my cut list), nothing stays long enough to wear out the welcome.
There's an unfair—and untrue—perception that great comics can't cut it as dramatic actors. Finkel tells an anecdote about Maurice Schwartz, who caused a sensation as Shylock in a Yiddish-language version of Merchant of Venice. Then Finkel slips into a Yiddish rendition of Shylock's "Hath not a Jew eyes." For a few moments, it's as if the whole history of a people and their culture and art pours out of one vigorous old man. Pacino is good, but can he do it in Yiddish?