‘Sorceress’s’ potent magic works this dark time

It’s hard to be cheerful right now.

It’s raining, there’s been no light all day, and now it’s getting dark for real.

The impeachment drama in Washington has been ugly all along, and no matter what side of it you’re on, you have to know that it’s only going to get uglier.

As I write this, a nightmare is going on in Jersey City; six people dead, two wounded, a shoot-out at a kosher supermarket.

This is not civilization as we have known it.

So let’s look for something else. Something different. Something better.

On Sunday night, my husband and I were lucky enough to be at the opening of “The Sorceress,” the Folksbiene’s new Yiddish production. (Because Zalmen Mlotek, the Folksbiene’s musical director and also its heart, brain, and soul, lives in Teaneck, we get to cover it as much as we want to. He makes it local for us, even though the theater is in way downtown Manhattan, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.)

It’s a tough act to follow the Yiddish version of “Fiddler on the Roof,” which had an unexpectedly and marvelously long run at the museum, and then miraculously went on to Broadway; it will close next month and then begin both national and international tours.

We all went to “Fiddler” with lifetimes of memories of it; we went knowing all the words and all the music and all the story. We still were blown away by the emotion of it; by the tragedy, by the life force that kept everyone going.

For all its moments of life and wit and joy, “Fiddler” is a tragedy, and it has deep resonance for us as Jews, for us as Americans, and for us as people. It ends in tears. The stage set was simple, and the costumes were somber. The colors were faded or dark.

“The Sorceress,” though, is something else entirely.

Although, as Zalmen and its director, Motl Didner, told me a few weeks ago, the operetta’s story includes an unself-conscious and historically fascinating glimpse at upper-middle-class Romanian Jewish life in the 1880s — not the least of which is the knowledge that there was such a thing as upper-middle-class Romanian Jewish life in the 1880s — most of it is pure fluff.

So yes, upper-middle-class Jews could be taken away by the police for the most made-up of reasons (and most likely non-Jews of that class could be as well, and this is not a tragedy, so the victim is released). And yes, unfortunate young women could be stolen from the streets and trafficked, sent, as the heroine of “The Sorceress” was, to Istanbul.

But mostly “The Sorceress,” like other operettas, is just plain fun. The characters are cartoons; the plot’s entirely transactional, the lessons are non-existent. But it’s beautifully acted, wonderfully sung, and gloriously, brightly, even brilliantly costumed, and because the theater is intimate — the more honest way to say that is it’s small — we in the audience see everything close up. We can see how good it is.

It’s fun identifying elements in the story — the plot is as convoluted and illogical as Gilbert and Sullivan’s are, and one of the songs starts with an introduction that sounds like “He is the very model of a modern major general.” The story’s basically Cinderella, with a murderous stepmother; the heroine, Mirele, even has her shoes ripped off her feet. The sorceress herself is a cackling Victorian villain, and the three dancing witches are straight out Shakespeare, practically chanting double double as they dance around the fire and the cauldron that just happens to bubble — but it’s turned into comedy. The first big scene looks a lot like “Nutcracker,” and one of Mirele’s costumes makes her look astoundingly like Tenniel’s Alice, long crimped blonde hair, short puffy sleeves, big eyes, pinafore, and all.

Zalmen and Motl told me that one of the main differences between “The Sorceress” and non-Jewish works is that in “The Sorceress” the villains are not done in by the hero but instead do themselves in. But it seems to me that they are hoist by their own petard, which means that at least the English knew about that too.

One striking difference, though — and a sweet one. The heroine and the hero do not fall in love. They’re already engaged. There are no tests. The hero follows her and finds her because he loves her. He doesn’t have to prove it. He just does it. That’s lovely.

There’s really no depth to “The Sorceress.” It doesn’t say anything. It doesn’t have to. Instead, it sings. In Yiddish.

So, if you want an antidote to the gloom that’s otherwise hard to keep at bay, consider a visit to “The Sorceress.” (It closes on December 29.)

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)