Mandy Patinkin has fashioned an extraordinary musical entertainment gathered from old European folk tunes, songs of the Yiddish theater, bitter laments of the Holocaust and even a dash of Broadway’s Irving Berlin. Sung entirely in Yiddish, “Mamaloshen” (Mother Tongue) is based on an idea suggested to the performer by the late Joseph Papp, a mentor of Patinkin. While an all-Yiddish program might appear to have limited appeal, be assured that it is invested with all-consuming universality and performed with wry humor, enveloping grace and persuasive theatricality.
In the seamless performance, Patinkin avoids idle chatter or introductory comments. Leaving no room for audience response or intrusive applause between numbers, the long medley flows from one song to another with subtle changes of tempo and mood. Occasionally an opening phrase is sung in English to set the scene. Only a simply stated description in the program notes suggests the content of a piece.
Patinkin transcends the language barrier with his extraordinary use of phrasing and body language. His hands express varying degrees of joy and sorrow, yearning and longing, unbridled celebration. As with the French of Piaf or the Portuguese of Jobim, the entertainer displays the beauty and colors of the Yiddish language and its rich musical literature, caressing his words with emotional candor and dancing wit.
Dressed in black, Patinkin never strays from his position center stage at a microphone. A consummate actor and storyteller, he infuses each song with telling dramatic images. With a warming twinkle in his eyes and a voice of expansive and colorful range, his program is laced with a balance of fervent intensity and heartfelt passion.
The ageless “Raisins and Almonds,” an old operetta aria that became a popular Jewish folk song and long served as a rallying cry of optimism for the Jewish faith, opens the program. It is followed by “Mayn Mirl,” performed with haunting romanticism and instantly recognizable as Leonard Bernstein’s “Maria.”
The immigrant experience is dutifully noted in a now timely expression of doomed lovers crossing the ocean on the ill-fated Titanic. A playful “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” reflects the joy of the huddled masses enjoying the pleasures of New York, and Berlin’s “God Bless America” makes a stirring patriotic coda.
In a surprising and amusing turn following the Jewish tradition of breaking the wedding glass, the audience is invited to join in the “Hokey Pokey.” The dazzling finale finds Patinkin singing the unlikely “White Christmas” with virtuoso violinist Saeka Matsuyama, who provides the flourishing accompaniment of a spirited gypsy czardas.
There are some pre-recorded choral effects, as well as the sweet voice of Judy Blazer, from the Nonesuch recording of the program, which embellish and complement a few soaring strains. With the sole exception of a massive American flag and an exceptionally sensitive lighting design, there are no added production values.
There could be no more ideal setting for the program than the Orensanz Center on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The Gothic structure is a safe and beautifully decaying synagogue that echoes the early roots of Jewish settlement. The oldest temple in New York, the tattered structure adds a nice atmospheric touch of Old World grandeur for Patinkin’s glorious musical canvas of Yiddish tradition and folklore. Mazeltov!