If Leo Rosten were alive today, he would enjoy Joel Paley’s light-hearted homage to his own mother — who organized theatrical productions for her temple — simply for its earnest outreach efforts on behalf of Yiddish, that ever-elastic and expressive tongue. As a successful novelist, screenwriter and aphorist, though, Rosten would have some reservations about the storyline.
Somewhere on the East Coast, theater mavens are gearing up for the annual Golden Tchotchke Awards, where Jewish congregations from near and far compete for the coveted award for outstanding production. Year after year, the title goes to the arrogant, good-looking and talented Mitzi Katz (Dana Barathy) and her Temple Ben Affleck meshpocheh, because she’s got the bucks and the chutzpah to get the job done.
Competitive Temple Ben Shtiller’s rabbi (Craig Sculli) is willing to spend $10,000 from selling a Torah and raiding the building fund to bring in a Broadway professional to whip his troops into shape and win the prize. He’s so desperate, in fact, that he’s willing to hire a goy named Christian von Trapp (David Ruffin) to direct. Oy, vey iz mir!
After Christian’s agent (Adam Shapiro) provides the Equity-evading pseudonym Daniel Tannenbaum for the run, predictable Freudian slips give away our undercover Christian: crossing himself, thanking Jesus, misinterpreting every Yiddish phrase thrown his way. Thankfully, flashy keyboardist Carl Hahn is there to translate for him and the goyim in the audience.
Barathy’s dazzling song-and-dance number “Mitzi Katz” sets the stage for the competitive showdown, and Deborah Radloff’s boa-wrapped burlesque sendup “Borscht Belt Betty” is a rocker.
Sculli’s ambitious rabbi, Shapiro’s conniving agent and Ruffin’s mercenary director pull out all their chops to squeeze what they can from paper-thin characters.
The show stopper is “Beautiful Bubbe,” a Busby Berkeley-inspired number topped off with headdresses adorned with Matzo boxes, Mah Jong pieces, hard candy and Loehmann’s bags. Howard Crabtree, get a load of this!
The ensemble work their tushies off selling A.C. Ciulla’s snappy choreography, set to Marvin Laird’s jazzy score and Paley’s sometimes clever, sometimes obvious lyrics in “Yinglish 101,” “It’s Tough to Get a Minyan,” “Eat a Little Something” and “Farblondget, Farplotzed.”
The tradition of producing musicals to raise money and entertain congregations is nearly as universal as religion itself, and while certain elements of the staging may meet professional standards, the insular nature of the genre usually limits mass appeal. So while “The Yiddish Are Coming…” may be the best synagogue show ever produced, its narrow premise and uneven writing prevents it from being anything more than that.