STAGE REVIEW : Yiddish Chestnuts in 'Second Avenue'

Sometimes an audience hums the tunes on its way out of the theater. At "On Second Avenue," the audience hums--and sings--while the show is still going on.

At least that's what happened in this nostalgic Yiddish-English revue at the Wilshire Ebell on Saturday night. Responding to an invitation in the program--"sing with us"--the crowd joined in to warble such ditties as "Rozhinkes mit Mandlen" ("Raisins and Almonds").

In Yiddish, of course.

"On Second Avenue" is a toast to the theater that provided a sort of secular temple to the Ashkenazic immigrants around the turn of the century and for several decades thereafter. In Los Angeles, it has a built-in audience of old folks: bubbes and zaydes who either remember the heyday of Second Avenue themselves or (more likely) remember hearing about it from their parents.

It must have been tempting for the creators of "On Second Avenue," Zalmen Mlotek and Moishe Rosenfeld, to simply ride on the good wishes of that built-in audience. And sometimes it seems as if that's what they've done.

When gags that were set up in English are capped by Yiddish punchlines, for example, those who don't understand Yiddish feel left out. And, with one exception, there isn't much that will challenge preconceived notions of Yiddish theater as a bath of sentiment, melodrama and jokes. That exception: a scene from a 1915 operetta in which a woman runs for mayor.

Still, Mlotek and Rosenfeld haven't abused the trust of their audience by letting standards slip. Except for a spotty sound system that intermittently plagued opening night, this is a beautifully polished show, which--in the tradition of the theater it salutes--relies primarily on a handful of sparkling personalities and on bittersweet music.

The top-billed personality is Mary Soreanu, who plays whining witches, great ladies of the stage and Molly Picon with equal facility. But the rest of the ensemble is just as good.

Bruce Adler does a stand-up patter routine, "Hootsatsa," in a greasy but funny style that demonstrates where Borscht Belt comedy--and by extension, much of American comedy--was born. And Adler attacks his more melodramatic scenes with marvelously flamboyant readings.

Stuart Figa unveils a gorgeous voice in one of the more musically complex numbers, the tender "Ikh Vil Nit Geyn in Kheyder," and elsewhere throughout the program. But he also knows how to milk the laughs.

Joanne Borts is a vivacious soubrette ("Oy, Mama, Am I in Love") and Seymour Rexsite, clearly the senior member of the cast, sings with effortless grace.

Director Isaiah Sheffer keeps this long, episodic show on course, assisted by the clangs and doodles and sighs of Mlotek's Second Avenue Klezmer Orchestra. Derek Wolshonak contributed reassuring choreography.

Reassuring would also describe Barbara Blackwood's colorful costumes. Brian Kelly designed a streetscape in which a dozen Yiddish marquees merge, lit by Victor En Yu Tan.

Performances continue at 4401 W . 8th St. tonight through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m., with 2 p.m. shows Wednesday and Sunday. Tickets: $15.50-$24.50; (213) 939-1128 or (213) 410-1062.

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