If I told you that the most scintillating vocal performance on the New York stage right now is that of a man on his own singing in Yiddish in a disused synagogue, you wouldn't believe me.
If I added that the man is Mandy Patinkin, famed on Broadway for his work in "Evita" and "Sunday in the Park With George," you might begin to change your mind.
And yet, the intitial skepticism is reasonable enough. Even after you've seen it, it's hard to understand the power of Patinkin's performance. How can a man singing old songs in what is, for me at least, an unknown language be so riveting?
One obvious answer is the sheer virtuosity of Patinkin's vocals and of the exquisite accompaniment by Eric Stern and Paul Ford on piano and by Saeka Matsuyama on violin.
Patinkin's voice does have an extraordinary range, from piercing falsetto to rumbling bass. But what's really important is the artistic tact with which he uses it.
"Mamaloshen" is something much more ambitious than just a nostalgic revival of Yiddish favorites. It is an attempt to capture through song the texture of Jewish life, and by extension of all immigrant life, in America. This means making the songs move from pleasure to despair.
Patinkin executes a breathtaking swoop from the joyous atmosphere of a drunken wedding to a dark sequence of numbers dealing with war, the Holocaust and the death of a sweatshop tailor in a strike. It takes both nerve and skill to pull this off, and Patinkin has an abundance of both. He combines the chutzpah of the old vaudeville performers with the technical discipline of a classical singer.
Patinkin also gives the concert the intensity and the shape of a drama. Instead of indulging in nostalgia, he explores the tensions of the immigrant experience by bouncing the Yiddish songs off American standards like "White Christmas" and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
Most daringly and brilliantly, Patinkin makes Paul Simon's "American Tune" the stream in which all the other songs flow.
Pieces of this modern Jewish-American masterpiece float in and out of the recital, so that when, at the end, Patinkin sings it in Yiddish, it has become an extraordinary meditation on what's lost and what survives in the passage from old Europe to the New World.
Who knew "White Christmas" could sound so lovely in Yiddish? Or "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"? Apparently Mandy Patinkin had an inkling, and the musical veteran has brought his distinctive vocal style to bear on these transfigured American classics as well as a host of Yiddish originals in "Mamaloshen," a remarkable evening of song in a language you certainly won't hear at your average recital, let alone booming from the stage of a Broadway house.
Patinkin's hourlong show, a transfer to a limited stand at the Belasco after a successful run at the Lower East Side's Angel Orensanz Center, is a poignant and warmly comic cycle of songs that celebrate the American immigrant experience and the emotional and musical legacies of the Jewish people. In assembling the evening, Patinkin has included both traditional folk songs that are unknown to the average contemporary audience and favorite chestnuts translated into Yiddish.
His opening song, for example, a lullaby sung in Patinkin's uniquely reedy falsetto tones, segues almost imperceptibly into "Mayn Mirl," which it takes a few bars to realize is none other than "Maria," from Bernstein and Sondheim's "West Side Story." The effect, of course, is to illuminate some of the sources of the music that has shaped American culture through the work of great popular songwriters such as Bernstein, Irving Berlin and Harold Arlen.
As this show so intriguingly reveals, Yiddish is a language that holds astonishing expressive possibilities (the wraparound Paul Simon tune --- the only one sung in English --- sounds startlingly flat by comparison), and Patinkin does justice to just about all of them. He's boisterously comic one moment, exhorting the audience to do the "Hokey Pokey," and plaintive the next, turning a song called "Papirosin," about a boy surviving the war by selling cigarettes, into a mournful little drama. The show, which Dodger plans to tour after the Broadway stint, will surely be a unique highlight of Patinkin's varied career.
A qualm: Since this is a traditional song recital --- right down to the generic flower arrangements at either side of the stage --- why not include translations of the lyrics in the program, as at classical vocal recitals? Most audiences, largely Jewish though they may be, probably don't understand Yiddish, and it would enrich the experience considerably.