by Ed Malin · November 22, 2013
Lies My Father Told Me is the story of a 6 year-old boy growing up in the Jewish immigrant community of Montreal in the 1920s. This fine musical with a cast of 17 and delightful score by Elan Kunin premiered in Canada several years ago and is now playing at Baruch College as part of the National Yiddish Theatre - Folksbiene's 99th anniversary season. Even if you haven't seen Jan Kadar's 1975 Academy Award-nominated film or read the works of Ted Allan on which it's based (I'm in both categories) you will find much of interest in the Folksbiene's musical adaptation.
David appears in the story both as his 6 year-old self (Alex Dreier) and his nostalgic adult self (Joe Paparella). It may have been a down-and-out part of Montreal in the 1920s, complete with a smelly stable abutting the tenement, but most everything is rosy in this musical flashback. David's Zaida (i.e. grandfather, played by Chuck Karel) is philosophical--like Tevye of Fiddler on the Roof fame--as he goes about his rag and fabric business from his cart pulled by a friendly, invisible, pungent horse. David's mother Annie (Russell Arden Koplin) is sweet and kind despite the ups and downs of David's father (Jonathan Raviv)'s bad business schemes. Next door is a well-adjusted prostitute, Edna (Leisa Mather) and a neighbor Mrs. Tanner (Renee Bang Allen) whose "mean streak" comes out when she dreams of not living next to a whore and a horse. In this charming locale, the overly literal David catches adults lying when they're not. He sees his father fail to perfect inventing creaseless pants. He willfully throws horsesh#t on Mrs. Tanner's steps and is amazed when his father considers punishing him. And then everything happens so fast, and he starts to grow into his older, narrator self.
I haven't seen the movie. I can't say there's much of a coherent plot here. But the music is lovely. The seven-piece orchestra under the direction of Michael Larsen evokes fantasy and klezmer and many immigrant yearnings. Merete Muenter's choreography is quite lively, leading one to ask if Zaida is upstaging little David or vice versa. Director Bryna Wasserman has undertaken something very big indeed, and the mostly-Yiddish Folksbiene has broadened its horizons to bring an English-language musical with Canadian punchlines to New York. It's still pure fantasy, like when Zaida faces off against his optimistic Communist friend, Mr. Baumgarten (Gordon Stanley), whose idea of angry is to clench his fist while smiling. Strongest among the cast for me were Chuck Karel as Zaida, Russell Arden Koplin as Annie, and Renee Bang Allen as Mrs. Tanner -- I liked John C. Dinning''s revolving stage and set designs a lot.