It is not often that Montrealers see a world premiere, let alone of a musical. The current Yiddish production of Tales of Odessa at the Segal Centre does have its English and French surtitles and a written English synopsis to guide the audience through the plot intricacies. However, the attraction here is not following every minor comment, but being swept along by the evocative music and immersed in the total atmosphere.
The music is by Josh Dolgin, who cannot be cited these days without adding “aka Socalled.” In fact, the program describes the piece as a “Socalled Musical.” How this creative fellow came to be dubbed as such will be revealed at the end of this review.
Anyway, in the course of this unique 75 minute show, he has crafted 15 songs and a mood-creating overture. A cast of 32 dances and sings its way. Riding the waves of the 7 piece band — accordion, bass, clarinet, cymbolom (what’s that?), drums, flute and of course, violin — were many fine duets and ensemble pieces. Stand out solos were Dos Grineh Kleyd (the green dress) by Bronna Levy as Dvorah and Afile Got Makht A Toes (even God makes mistakes) by Gab Desmond as Benya Krik.
Anti hero Benya becomes the King of the local Russian Jewish underworld. While there are overtones of Mack the Knife (Threepenny Opera) and Don Corleone (The Godfather), there are also flavourings of Robin Hood, Damon Runyon and even the Keystone Kops. In any event, this guy is Mos Def not Tevya the milkman (Fiddler on the Roof).
The appropriate ramshackle set by frequent Segal (and Centaur) designer John C. Dinning is a perfect backdrop to Monika Heredi’s period costuming. The innovative shadow puppets (reminiscent of Indonesian theatre) balanced the 3-D actors well. This technique sure worked for Julie Taymor (The Lion King) so why not for Clea Minaker?
The whole is an example of cultural globalization. A Yiddish speaking community is popularized in Russian by Isaak Babel, translated into English so Mr Dolgin and book writer Derek Goldman can create the show, then into Yiddish by Miriam Hoffman for the final product, which bears some Indonesian spicing. So…go see it already!
- A Cymbolom is described as a Hungarian (or Romanian) dulcimer which in turn is a sort of marimba. To my admittedly tin ear, it seems a sort of xylophone.
- Josh Dolgin, active in hip hop/rap circles, was obliged to adopt a nick name and chose “Heavy J.” However, one of his peers, noting Josh’s lithe build, commented “You ain’t really heavy, bro, you only “so called.”
Tales of Odessa continues at the Segal Centre until July 7. 514-739-7944 www.segalcentre.org