Last Night at the Cabaret Yitesh is playing at the Ashkenaz Festival at Harbourfront. It’s a crazy mix of cabaret and other influences from the wild and wacky pen of Michael Wex. The back story is that it’s 1938 and the last night that the Yiddish language Cabaret Yitesh will perform in Warsaw before being, in effect, deported. So, no longer dependent for their continued existence on the whims of the censor’s office they can let rip.
It’s much more than just a series of jokes about Hitler, the Nazis and the ineffective Polish government. There are a whole series of influences in play. There’s the Weimar cabaret “tradition” with Brecht/Weill’s Seeräuber-Jenny (sung, of course, in Yiddish). There’s music hall; a Yiddish version of George Formby’s I’m Standing by the Streetlamp on the Corner of the Street accompanied by ukulele (a circumcised guitar!). There’s some very Yiddish humour and some stories/sketches that occur in various popular culture manifestations like the two guys who never get to finish a sentence. Also the “inappropriate” use of a pack of cards leading to an explanation of their mystical significance. The yeshivah boy version here might be contrasted with, for example, Les Barker’s The Franco-Prussian war of the Spanish succession.
There are also some rather more sophisticated musical jokes. There are riffs on Schoenberg and Tristan und Isolde as well as a most unusual version of the Habanera and a brilliant Gefilte fish transladaptation of Schubert’s Die Forelle. It all leads up to the final number The Last Jew in Poland. Poland’s secular and religious leaders are in emergency session. All the Jews have left. Even the statue of Jesus in the cathedral has come down and asked for a suitcase! The economy has collapsed. The cultural industries have disappeared. They need the Jews (or at least one of them). Finally they track down the one elderly Jew who has missed the bus. Can he save the day? You’ll have to go see to find out.
It’s fast paced, very funny, very clever and sometimes very moving. And you’ll be relieved to know there are English subtitles. Michael Wex as a tail coated MC heads up a really good ensemble cast of Shane Barker, Daniel Kahn, Sveta Kundish and Sasha Lurje with Patrick Farrell as musical director on piano, accordion and various less orthodox instruments. There’s excellent acting, exquisite comic timing, dodgy cross-dressing and some really high class vocal chops. What’s not to like?
There’s one more show in the run today at 2pm at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre. I recommend it highly but don’t bank on the published two hour running time. last night it went over by at least 35 minutes!
I’ll add photos when I get them but I wanted to publish early so that anyone moved to catch the show could!