Move over, Iron Man. Step aside, Robin Hood. A new hero has come to town: Hershele. Hershele Ostropolyer, brought to mischievous life by Mike Burstyn.
Lawrence Van Gelder, The New York TImes
The ebullient Mike Burstyn, a veteran of both Broadway and Yiddish theater ("Barnum," "On Second Avenue"), plays Hershele, a vagabond who sets out to right wrongs despite his own impoverished circumstances.
Frank Scheck, New York Post
The best news of all is that it stars Mike Burstyn. Burstyn, with his long Yiddish theater history and pedigree as the son of Yiddish stars Pesach Burstein and Lillian Lux, has vaudevillian style comedy and physical movements down pat and is thoroughly endearing on stage.
By William Wol, New York Calling Theatre.
The big name in the show is Mike Burstyn, who plays the lovable rascal with great zest and a fine sense of Yiddish irony. But if Burstyn brings in the audience, he also lifts up the show. He sings, dances and dispenses a great deal of Yiddish wisdom and humor.
This little gem of a musical is made to order for its star Mike Burstyn. A perfect fit, as they once said in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Burstyn (playing a roving penniless character who lives by his wits) sings, dances, and performs his way into our hearts.
He’s the mensch: Mike Burstyn and the quest to keep Yiddish alive
Posted by Mark Dundas Wood on Thursday, May 26, 2011
When entertainers say they have “international careers,” it often means they’ve made one or two excursions away from their home turf. In the case of Mike Burstyn, though, the claim verges on understatement. Burstyn, who was born Mike Burstein in New York City in 1945, is fluent in eight languages and is currently learning a ninth (Russian). The singer/actor has performed in French in France, in Spanish in South America, and in Hebrew in Israel. In the 1970s he hosted a variety program in Holland where he spoke Dutch. His English-language roles include the title character in Broadway ‘s musical Barnum(replacing Jim Dale, who originated the role). The language that Burstyn is perhaps most passionate about is one that’s been on the endangered-idiom list in recent decades: Yiddish. As a child, he and his twin sister Susan (a self-taught ventriloquist) toured with their parents, Pesach Burstein and Lillian Lux, who were famous performers in the international Yiddish theatre. (The story of the Burstein family is told—fascinatingly—in the award-winning 2000 Israeli documentary The Komediant.) Currently, Burstyn is performing in Yiddish in New York City at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. He plays the title character in The Adventures of Hershele Ostropolyer. The musical, based on a three-act play by Moyshe Gershenson, centers on a quick-witted “Jewish Robin Hood” character who comes to the aid of villagers suffering under the tyranny of the town miser, Reb Kalmen. The legendary trickster Hershele Ostropolyer was reputedly inspired by a real-life historical figure.
The musical—billed as “a Comic Tale Full of Song, Wit and Meshugene Antics”— had a successful engagement at the Folksbiene in 2010, so this is an encore run. Burstyn was not familiar with the original Gershenson play when director/choreographer/adapter Eleanor Reissa approached him about playing Hershele last year. But that didn’t hold him back.
“Immediately I said I wanted to do it,” he explains, “both because of the part…and also because my goal for years has been to help maintain the Yiddish language as a living, performed language and not just an academic language.”
Although the play was new to him, Burstyn did have a tie to the main character. He won a Kinor David award—the Israeli equivalent of the Oscar—for playing the title role in a film called Hershele in 1977. The protagonist of that film, a Russian immigrant to Israel, claimed to be a descendant of the cunning folk hero.
Some audience members at the Folksbiene (mainly the older ones) understand every spoken word and lyric in The Adventures of Hershele. But for those who don’t, the theatre projects English (and Russian) titles on panels above the stage. The super-titles help Burstyn and company size up the composition of the audience.
“That’s the litmus test, right at the beginning,” he says. “If we hear people laughing when we get to the end of the sentence, then they’re reacting to the Yiddish itself. If there’s a slight delay, then obviously they’re reading the translation.”
Burstyn notes that many of his fellow Adventures of Hershele performers are not fluent in the language. “Actors—that’s what we do. When opera singers have to learn a new libretto in French or German or Italian, most of them are not from that background. They learn it. And you need a good ear. It’s one of the things you have to develop. The same thing here: [The cast members] are speaking Yiddish beautifully. And we’ve helped them.”
Interest in Yiddish as a spoken language has grown in recent years, says Burstyn. In part that’s been due to the popularity of klezmer music (as klezmer musicians come from a Yiddish-speaking tradition). But much of the Yiddish renaissance in the U.S. has been prompted by a desire among younger Jewish Americans to discover their roots.
A similar Yiddish revival has taken place in Israel, a country that was fairly unwelcoming of the language after Hebrew was selected as the national tongue. Now, with Israeli baby boomers harboring nostalgic longings for the voices of Yiddish-fluent parents and grandparents, the language is making a comeback there too. “[The boomers] are in their sixties now, and they’re coming to listen to it as a way of regaining their childhood memories,” Burstyn explains.
At 65, he still works a lot, but Burstyn says it’s impossible for him to nourish all facets of his worldwide career equally. Like most any actor, he needs to go wherever the jobs are.
However, he tries to make a trek to Israel at least once a year—for film, concert, or theatre work. Last year he traveled there three times, participating in a series of well-received Yiddish-language concerts. He would like to take The Adventures of Hershele to Israel as well. He feels confident that there would now be an audience for it.
Before he gets a chance to do that, however, Burstyn will head to Los Angeles this September to play the lead in Jolson at the Winter Garden!, a new show about entertainer Al Jolson that he and director Bill Castellino developed. The show had its initial tryout in Florida earlier this year. Burstyn’s dream would be to bring the show to New York eventually.
Burstyn previously played “Jolie” a few years ago, in Jolson: The Musical. That production didn’t make it to Manhattan, Burstyn notes, largely because of the politically touchy issue of blackface performance—something Jolson was famous for. (The John Kander/Fred Ebb minstrel-show-related musical The Scottsboro Boys shuttered quickly on Broadway earlier this season in part because of controversies involving similar racially sensitive themes.)
With the new show, Burstyn does not anticipate such difficulties. “Jolson didn’t perform in blackface in these [1920s] concerts at the Winter Garden [Theatre in New York]. He performed as Al Jolson. So I don’t think that is going to bother us if we bring it to New York.”
Jolson is just one of many real-life characters Burstyn has portrayed during his career. Others include showmen P.T. Barnum and Mike Todd, gangster Meyer Lansky, international banker Mayer Rothschild, and controversial attorney Roy Cohn. Is there any other historical figure he would like to play? Burstyn can’t think of anyone, but he would enjoy trying his hand at Charles Dickens’ villain Fagin from Oliver Twist (and the musical adaptation, Oliver!).
And what about performing in his own life story, perhaps in a stage version of the Komediantdocumentary? Burstyn wouldn’t rule it out. He does know for sure that he wants eventually to write a book about his life.
In the meantime, there is that unceasing devotion to preserving the Yiddish performance tradition: “I was lucky, because I was born into it…” he says.
“I caught the last Golden Age of the Yiddish theatre, and I experienced it personally. And so I kind of feel I have an obligation to be that link in the chain between the past Yiddish theatre and today’s audiences.”
For information on tickets for The Adventures of Hershele Ostropolyer, visit www.folksbiene.org.
“The Adventures of Hershele Ostropolyer” initiated a limited run (until June 26) at the Folksbiene Theater, Baruch College on Manhattan’s East Side. Go! Go! Go! It will transport you into a charming world where all can be solved by a bit of seychel, a bit of mazel, and, of course, a bit of love. That’s what Yiddish theater is all about, isn’t it?
Hershele Ostropolyer is a would-be Robin Hood. Mike Burstyn is Hershele. The plot, while wonderfully simple and obvious, keeps the viewer’s attention with just enough twists and turns through its iterative steps. It’s an “if only, what if?” experience in the possible (if not the probable) that is well worth seeing. Hershele is challenged to help young love succeed and has only his wits on which to rely. His defeat – and reformation – of the town miser, Reb Kalmen, is a quick moving, quick witted game well worth playing.
The evening on which this viewer saw the show, Burstyn was recovering from a leg injury, and, trooper that he is, managed to jump and bounce through the dancing – albeit, with a little help from his friends. The songs and limited dialogue, performed entirely in Yiddish, are translated into easily readable English and Russian supertitles, thus eliminating any language barrier for the non Yiddish speaking viewer.
Based on the classic Yiddish play by Moyshe Gershenson, the show has an original score featuring nicely above average Yiddish theatre and folk songs compiled by the Yiddish musicologist Chana Mlotek. Zalmen Mlotek, Ms. Mloteks’s son, is the show’s music director, and is responsible for the arrangements.
Hershele is indeed an adventure – one well worth joining.