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This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on August 12, 1998. All rights reserved.
While divas of today's musical theater are almost a dime a dozen, there may be just a handful of male singer/actors who could qualify for the title of "divus." At the moment, I am thinking only of Mandy Patinkin who sits alone, enthroned. For proof, one has only to venture to New York's Lower East Side to the Angel Orensanz Center, a grandly decaying old Sephardic synagogue, where Patinkin is pouring out his stirring voice, his heart, and his soul in a brilliant and unique concert called "Mamaloshen," which means, in Yiddish, "Mother Tongue."
Patinkin, who may possess the greatest octave-spanning range in one single voice since Yma Sumac, brings all the richness, vibrancy, and emotional timbre he can muster to make his solo singing of Yiddish and Yiddish-ized songs a thrilling event. Comprised of traditional folk songs of the old world, songs of hope, humor, and sadness born in the new world, and songs that delightfully and touchingly blend their Yiddish roots with the American experience, "Mamaloshen" may be the most affecting and riveting evening I've spent in the theater this year.
You may already have heard selections from Patinkin's Nonesuch label recording, "Mamaloshen," that he recently made to re-identify with, and re-glorify, a musical heritage that has served as the inspiration to many a Broadway tunesmith from Irving Berlin to Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. Forgive that familiar expression, "you don't have to be Jewish to..." Although it's true a little Yiddish can always come in handy, you don't have to understand a word of it to glean the dramatic essence and the emotional experience of these songs.
And who will not immediately recognize "Mayn Mirl" as "Maria" from "West Side Story," or the half-Yiddish, half-American, "Take Me Out to the Ball," and "God Bless America" as they become part of an all-American family outing called, "A Day in the Park." Notwithstanding the audience-pleasing surprise of an American flag that unfurls across the stage, there is the charming appearance of 18-year-old violinist Saeka Matsuyama who adds dazzling virtuosity to a "Der Alter Tzigayner" ("The Old Gypsy") which serendipitously winds up "White Christmas."
Intense and focused, Patinkin, dressed in black, simply stands before a microphone and proceeds to demonstrate the power of alternately ferocious and tender body language, as well as the glory behind a song beautifully sung. Backed by the unobtrusive but impressive piano artistry of Eric Stern, and on one occasion by the recorded voices of Judy Blazer and Zalman Miotek's 30-member Yiddish Chorale, Pakinkin needs no added production values as he segues, virtually without a break (and with no time allotted for mood-breaking applause), from song to song. And like a musical collage, songs are integrated for dramatic effect.
Gentle songs like the familiar lullaby "Rizhinkes Mit Mandlen" ("Raisins and Almonds"), and the reverie of a homesick immigrant, "Belz," are plaintively expressed. Animation and exuberance are not alien to Patinkin as he adds some delicious inflections to an amusing song of a guy who wants 10 pennies to romance his girl, and to "Yoma Yoma," in which he sings the words of a mother who asks her daughter, "What do you want?" Most dramatic, to me, were some unfamiliar songs such as "Motl der Opreyter," about a sweatshop tailor killed in a union strike (brief song explanations are given in the program), and "Lit fun Titanic," in which two doomed lovers question God. Both are genuine tissue grabbers.
With "Mamaloshen," Patinkin doesn't even let the playful children's alphabet song, "Oyfn Pripetshik," go wanting for subtle inflections or dialectic nuances. Nor does he avoid the call for a showing of rage and agony in "Unter Dayne Vayse Shtern" ("Under Your White Stars"), a Holocaust song, and "Papirosin," which tells of a boy who sells cigarettes to survive the war. That you may be emotionally moved goes without saying, but also be prepared to move your body to the Yiddish version of "The Hokey-Pokey." This is a segment from which, Patinkin assures us, no one will be exempt. Either before or after the show, don't forget Katz's famous delicatessen is just across the street where the hot pastrami is to die for. The combination is unbeatable. HHHH
-- Simon Saltzman
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