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STAGE REVIEW : ‘Yiddle With a Fiddle’ Romps With a Yiddish Heart : A musical tribute to faith and hope digs deep into cultural roots at the Westwood Playhouse.

TIMES THEATER WRITER

Depending on your viewpoint, you could describe “Yiddle With a Fiddle,” the new musical that opened Sunday at the Westwood Playhouse, as a gem of Yiddish retrieval or a quaint ethnic musical on a shoestring. Both descriptions would be correct, but neither would account for the production’s most important ingredient: Talent and terrific spirit.

Heart, too. Lots of it. What’s a Jewish musical without heart? And considering the extent to which “Yiddle With a Fiddle” is a cut-and-paste musical, it is joyfully seamless, assembled though it is from the musical lore of Abraham Ellstein with a little help from his friends--especially librettist/lyricist Isaiah Sheffer, who wrote new lyrics for many of the songs and masterminded the project.

Like “Finkel’s Follies,” which preceded “Yiddle” at the Westwood, it is designed to reach a Jewish audience with its roots deep in Yiddish culture, although few of the songs here are sung in Yiddish and usually after we’ve first heard them in English. Unlike “Follies,” it is not a revue.

It is a latter-day book musical, based on Joseph Green’s 1936 film, “Yidl Mit’n Fiddle,” which starred a young Molly Picon. It traces the story of spunky Yiddle, who, for self-protection, dresses up as a boy when she and her impoverished father Aryeh (Mitchell Greenberg) are evicted and hit the Polish road as itinerant musicians. They meet up with two other klezmerim (musicians), Kalamutke (Michael Ingram) and Froym (Robert Michael Baker), and when they can’t compete for the same audiences, join forces. After all, four can starve as well as two.

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So far so bad, but things get worse when the band is hired to play at a wedding and ends up rescuing the bride, Teibele (Patricia Ben Peterson), from a disastrous mismatch, fleeing town with her in tow. By then, Yiddle has fallen in love with Froym and thinks Froym is in love with Teibele and oy, mama, do things ever get messy. And funny. And rowdy. And sweet. But not sickly sweet.

The plot sprouts subplots in Act II and gets a lot more complicated and livelier when Kalamutke takes the band to Warsaw (“the Big Knish”). He puts them up at the widow Channah’s boardinghouse. Channah (Susan Flynn), a friend, has designs on him, just as Yiddle has designs on Froym. And even though Kalamutke, who is never sure of anything, is not sure he wants to settle down, life and Channah solve the problem for him. After many songs and many twists of plot, every gal gets her guy or the other way around.

This sprightly tall tale is not much more or less than an excuse for offering a profoundly Jewish lesson in how to perceive adversity as an opportunity for change--or a simplistic one in the power of positive thinking that knows when to use parody (witness the wedding scene or the character of impresario Beerbohm Zigfeld Zinger). It has its anachronistic touches and improbabilities, essentially designed to spice up such songs as “New Rhythm” or “How Can the Cat Cross the Water?”

Ingram’s Kalamutke is endearing, but it’s the women in this cast who take it away--Peterson with her glass-shattering soprano, Flynn with her big voice and Olive Oyl-y comic flair. But the production’s real asset is gamin Emily Loesser as Yiddle, who has accurately described her own interpretation as “a combination of Sean Penn and James Cagney.” Plus Early Mickey Rooney.

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For one so tiny, Loesser has plenty of moxie, spunk and volume, which often makes up for director Ran Avni’s rudimentary comic business (as in the wedding scene) and Helen Butleroff’s predictable choreography (ditto).

Karen Hummel’s costumes are fine, but the sets (by Jeffrey Schneider) have a thrift-shop look about them, with carts, cars and trains manifesting themselves as crude plywood cut-outs rolled on and off stage by hand, while other props are also strictly basic (including the wedding feast food).

It’s a disconcerting economy, inconsistent with the quality of the performing and creative talent. The music is nostalgic and inviting--Sheffer has done a top job with lyrics and research--and Lanny Meyers’ orchestrations, musical direction and vocal arrangements are spirited and strong. It’s fun, so why spoil it with shabby production values? A stone of this potential deserves a better mounting.

“Yiddle With a Fiddle,” Westwood Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m., Thursdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sundays, 3 and 7 p.m. Ends Feb. 10. $24-$30; (213) 208-5454, (213) 410-1062. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.

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‘Yiddle With a Fiddle’

Emily Loesser: Yiddle

Mitchell Greenberg: Aryeh

Michael Ingram: Kalamutke

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Robert Michael Baker: Froym

Patricia Ben Peterson: Teibele

Susan Flynn: Channah

A new musical based on the 1936 film by Joseph Green. Producers Raymond Ariel, Lawrence Toppall. Director Ran Avni. Book and lyrics Isaiah Sheffer. Music Abraham Ellstein and others. Sets Jeffrey Schneider. Lights Robert Bessoir.. Costumes Karen Hummel. Musical director Lanny Meyers. Choreographer Helen Butleroff. Stage manager D.C. Rosenberg.

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