Keeping it Yiddish

Intricate, outrageous plots; clever wordplay; catchy songs performed quickly. Hearing the work of opera composers William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan (the British duo who collaborated from 1871 to 1896 and put the "light" in light opera) sung in English is enough to give the average listener a splitting headache. Imagine the works performed in Yiddish. Oy, vey! Topsy-turvy indeed.

With a repertoire consisting of H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado à la Yiddish, the Gilbert and Sullivan Yiddish Light Opera Company has been single-handedly doing that for more than twenty years. Based in Merrick, Long Island, the 50-member troupe, made up mostly of retired schoolteachers, dentists, and other professionals, began as a lark for a group of amateur actors who liked to sing G&S songs in Yiddish after performing shows in English. Soon they formalized their shtick by creating their own company. The initial inspiration came from one of the founders, Al Grand, who had heard a Yiddish recording of Pinafore that a Brooklyn Hadassah group had done as a fundraiser in the 1950s. A woman named Miriam Walowitt had written it. The troupe purchased the rights to her work, which also included a version of The Mikado. Grand pulled out his pen and with the help of colleague Bob Tartell retooled them into Der Yiddisher Pinafore and Der Yiddisher Mikado. He also wrote his own version of Pirates, which he dubbed Di Yam Gazlonim (The Robbers of the Sea).

Made up mostly of volunteers and a couple pros, some of whom are scattered about the country, the ensemble has toured in the United States, Canada, and even England. This weekend it arrives in South Florida for three performances of Der Yiddisher Mikado, sponsored by the Dora Teitelboim Center for Yiddish Culture. Originally opened in 1885, G&S's The Mikado ran for two years. Their most popular operetta, it gave a renewed spark to the team's faltering partnership. Not for Yiddish-speakers only, the reworked pieces are loose adaptations that boast intact plots, lavish costumes, plus liberal amounts of Jewish humor and phrases. Dialogue is in English. Songs, however, are sung in Yiddish. Names are changed too. Fifty-one-year-old Phil Bennis of Broward, a thirteen-year member, is one of a few actors who plays what he calls "the juvenile leads." Nanki-Poo, his Mikado character, is transformed to Yankee-Pu.

Magically the musicals do what seems to be a doubly incongruous job: keeping what is assumed to be a quickly dying language alive via the quaint form of Victorian opera. How long Yiddish or the company will last is a mystery. Many cast members are in their seventies, some are not Jewish, and many don't even speak Yiddish. They learn their parts phonetically. But as Bennis notes about the rigors of the stage: "It's a labor of love, not just a love of performing but a love of Yiddishkeit [the spirit of Jewishness], so it's a cultural thing as well as a performing arts thing." And, Bennis agrees, loving Gilbert and Sullivan "certainly doesn't hurt" either.