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A CurtainUp Review
The Fishkin Touch

By Ruth Gerchick

Those who could afford it frequented the theaters on Second Avenue, where Shakespeare and Ibsen were performed by leading Jewish actors. If that was too highbrow, there was always vaudeville and the bawdy burlesque comedians at Minsky’s. (Ed Note: Well documented in Jeff Kisseloff's oral history, You Must Remember This which is unfortunately out of stock in most book stores, including )

The Jewish Repertory’s The Fishkin Touch, a tongue-in-cheek (I hope) musical review, draws inspiration from both strands of Yiddish theater melding them into a mish-mash of a show, with pleasant, occasionally lilting songs and a spate of jokes, nostalgic or worn out as the viewer sees them. The glue is provided mostly by Boris Fishkin, a matinee idol and Fishkin Playhouse impressario, who has seen younger and better times. Veteran actor, Mike Burstyn, who first went onstage with his theatrical family at the age of seven, has all the smarts and schmaltz necessary to identify with the Second Avenue charmer down to the dancing eyes and dashing way of tilting his fedora hat. As Fishkin, he carries the show, aided by his troupe of players consisting of his doting mama, leading lady cum-business manager, a feisty young actor and an ingenue.

The time is spring of 1910. The place is the velvet-curtained stage of a Lower East Side theater that resembles nothing more than an old time synagogue echoing the background and traditionalism of early Yiddish theater audiences.

So what’s new? Not enough. A musical revue doesn’t really need a point or humworthy music or quotable lyrics, but how about a little suspense, a soup¢on of unpredictablity, even a bizarre scene. Or am I asking too much?

The plot of this potboiler hangs on Boris’s devotion to the guarantee that made the Fishkin Playhouse an all-time success. To his Lower East Side audience, even when beset by every conceivable frustration (financial and otherwise) he had always offered a happy ending or your money back. Now he and his policy are threatened by new modern ideas.

The truth finally dawns as Reuben, the rebellious youthful actor (Jordan Leeds), who represents the future, pooh poohs Fishkin’s slogan as hopelessly outmoded. To prove the point, he bolts the company, writing his own play which provides a hospital-bed tragic ending-- as his new generation sees fit.

The erstwhile mighty Fishkin bellows and wails, but what can he do as he sees the competition moving in. Maybe tragedy is the right and commercial answer after all? Throw in the machinations of the extravagantly garbed, thespian grandma who holds the key to the family secret about Reuben’s origins, and a romantic interest in the form of the pretty waitress with a sweet voice(Beth Thompson), and there’s the story.

Music by Greg Armbruster with Sondheim influences, often rises above the rest of the material and once in awhile a song really jells. "The Scarlet Aleph" with Sophie (Carolann Page) as the Jewish Hester Prynne, has the audience on its feet and grandma Zelda(Joan Copeland) and Sophie’s duet, "All We want Is For You" is evocative.

By David Javerbaum
Directed by Alan Fox
With: Mike Burstyn, Joan Copeland, Carolann Page, Jordan Leeds, Beth Thompson
Musical Direction by Christoper McGovern
Lighting Design: Robert Williams
Scenic Design: Craig Clipper
Costumes: Gail Cooper-Hecht
Sound: Josh Bender-Dubiel
Playhouse 91 316 East 91St Street 212-831-2001

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© Elyse Sommer, June 1998