Yiddish theater helped prepare actress for Benedum

Yiddish theater helped prepare actress for Benedum

Dani Marcus (Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust)
Dani Marcus (Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust)

Who would have thought that performing in the Yiddish theater would prepare an actress for a national tour of a Tony Award-winning musical?

Who knew the Yiddish theater was still a thing?

Up until being cast as a swing performer in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” which will run at the Benedum Center from Nov. 17 through Nov. 22, the toughest career challenge faced by Dani Marcus was acting in several productions of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF), the longest continuously producing Yiddish theater company in the world.

Marcus, who is Jewish but who does not speak Yiddish, was first drawn to the NYTF when she saw a casting call in New York for a Yiddish version of “The Pirates of Penzance” in 2006.

“I saw that notice, and I thought, ‘Really?’” recalled Marcus.

Although she did not grow up hearing the language spoken by relatives, she auditioned for the show and was cast as the female lead — requiring her to learn all her lines, and the Gilbert and Sullivan score, in Yiddish.

It was a challenge, she said, but one she was ready to undertake.

“Learning the musical parts was a bit easier, because of the rhythm and rhyme,” Marcus said. “But the play is harder, because you have to understand not only what you’re saying, but the intention behind it. There isn’t any improvising. You have to be word perfect. It’s hard to perform in a language you don’t think in. It confines you a bit more. But it was fun to get my brain around.”

NYTF was founded in 1915 and is the oldest consecutively producing performing arts institution in the United States.  Marcus credits the theater company for its outreach, particular to young people, in keeping the art of Yiddish theater alive.

Although Marcus is not a religiously observant Jew, performing with NYTF has given her a meaningful connection to her heritage.

“This has connected me in a way I never thought I would feel connected,” she said. “The theatrical historian in me loves it, and the Jewish person in me loves it too. I know what a rich history the Yiddish theater has for the Jewish people.”

Many of the actors she works with at NYTF either speak Yiddish fluently or have a “real handle on it.”

“People don’t realize it’s a real lovely language, as well as a real funny language,” she said. “There can be a real music to it.”

As challenging as it is performing an entire show in an unfamiliar language, though, an even bigger challenge for Marcus has been learning the roles of four different actors in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.” As a swing actor, Marcus covers for other actors if for any reason they are unable to perform in a given show.

“There is so much information to keep in your brain all at once, she said. “Between covering for four women, I have 32 characters. It’s a lot. But doing the Yiddish theater was helpful, because that was also a thing I had never done before — a show in another language. And yet I found a way to do it. Knowing that I had done that once has been comforting going into this process.”

She is thrilled, she said, to be a part of the production that will have its Pittsburgh premiere next week.

“I saw the show on Broadway and I fell in love with it on the first downbeat,” she said of “A Gentleman’s Guide,” which won the 2014 Tony for best musical. This is its first national tour, and it has been garnering an enthusiastic response.

“The audience is going nuts for it,” Marcus said. “People are just eating it up. It’s hilarious, but it is also beautiful to look at. And the lyrics are so clever. It’s an unlikely story and very fresh.”

“Gentleman’s Guide” tells the story of Monty Navarro, a distant heir to a family fortune who sets out to jump the line of succession by any means necessary.

“It has everything you want in a show,” said Marcus.

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.

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