There are many, many ways for a production to be awful, and The Yiddish Are Coming, at the New Denver Civic Theatre, hits on just about all of them. It's a cheap little venture -- small cast, easy set and costumes, empty-headed concept -- put together for the sole purpose of making money. Just as Menopause the Musical was calculated to appeal to a specific market -- all those middle-aged women who like to congregate and kvetch about the change of life -- Yiddish is intended to attract Denver's sizable Jewish population for an evening of drinks, shmoozing and easy laughs at $34.50 a ticket. Naturally, you don't want to annoy that population with anything that might make them think, gasp or argue, so even though Jews actually live to argue (it's required of us by our G-d) and the Jewish community in most cities is roiling with emotion these days (if you're not Jewish and want to know what's going on, see Douglas Rushkoff's Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism and Samuel G. Freedman Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry), the jokes in this musical have to be tame.
Ruthless, an earlier work by authors Marvin Laird (music) and Joel Paley (book and lyrics), was quite outrageous, borrowing every kitschy, campy moment you've ever remembered from old plays and movies to hilarious effect, but here Laird and Paley have toned themselves down. Or did they eviscerate Yiddish, originally called Jewsical - the Chosen Musical, for us hicks in Denver? Whatever the reason, the piece feels amazingly old-fashioned. You could have shown this in the 1950s to an audience of geriatrics without causing offense.
The premise: Temple Ben Shtiller wants to win this year's Golden Tchotchke Award for the best performance by a synagogue, wresting the prize away from brash, conceited, nine-year winner Mitzi Katz. The members decide to hire professional help, and an out-of-work director named Christian Von Trapp is brought in -- with the proviso that he pass for Jewish. You might expect some culture-clash humor here, but it's hard to imagine that any New York City theater person isn't completely familiar with bagels and knishes. The plot is pretty undeveloped -- even for this kind of show -- and serves solely as the base for a slew of skits and allusions. Von Trapp whips everyone into shape for a series of songs that are actually full of rhythmic and melodic vitality and humor, but flattened by the kindergarten-level jokes of the lyrics. Okay, many Yiddish words are funny -- verklempt, shlemiel, plotz -- but tossed into the proceedings higgledy-piggledy, they're not nearly funny enough to carry the evening.
Any redeeming features? The music is lively, and the farcical tributes to other shows, from Fiddler on the Roof to The Producers, are amusing. The Vagina Monologues becomes "The Angina Monologues" and also "The Tuchus Dialogues"; A Chorus Line translates into "A Tsuris Line."
Although the cast members perform in that smiley, jumpy, overhyped, ubiquitous-in-musicals way that makes me want to scratch myself raw, they're talented. Carl Haan provides bright piano accompaniment, and A.C. Ciulla's choreography is slick, clean and fast. But the production values are sleazy. You can see mikes hanging off the performers' faces, and the overall sound is coarse and loud. In a more intimate setting, the silly jokes might seem sweet, but yelled into your face, they repel.
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.