Musical Theatre review: Yiddish Divas: Into the Red Tent, Kadimah Jewish Cultural Centre

A cabaret featuring Yiddish song and a multi-generational cast of performers.

For anyone interested in all the cultural and linguistic diversity Melbourne has to offer, Kadimah Yiddish Theatre is a professional, independent and exciting theatre company at the heart of Melbourne’s south-east. The company features artistic director Evelyn Krape – who some of us grew up with as the voice of the Old Ewe in Babe and got to see as Queen Lear in fortyfivedownstairs’ energetic production – as well as acclaimed theatre director Gary Abrahams, who directed Krape in the innovative, stylish and poignant Ghetto Cabaret for the same theatre.

Kadimah Yiddish Theatre nurtures new works in an old language, such as a new translation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s play Yentl, which had its Australian premiere at Arts Centre Melbourne last year. 

Just next to the Classic Cinema in Elsternwick, Kadimah provides stylish, modern content in Yiddish. The endangered language of the Jews in Europe is spoken by many migrants as a second, third or fourth language and at Kadimah it is accessible both conceptually and with English surtitles. You see a Yiddish performance in the way you may see an opera, conscious of it as an artefact of its time, but also for its contemporary resonances. Where an opera may pull you in with the promise of musical transcendence, but ask you to acquiesce to outdated cultural politics along the way, the pleasure of Yiddish theatre is in seeing how modern a dialect that was at its height in the age of Enlightenment can feel in an uncertain world. 

And if one thing is certain, it’s the broad appeal of a show like Yiddish Divas: Into the Red Tent. It’s the latest in a series of shows by Yiddish divas that showcase traditional poems and jokes with arrangements that are at times new and at times wittily familiar. The show draws you in with its immersive evocation of a red tent as an Oriental-themed space, which provides access to an old world of female intimacy that becomes a byword for feminist empowerment. Songs interspersed with jokes create a cabaret-like sensibility that delights. 

In a program divided into six worldly themes encompassing birth, betrayal and bonding, the program’s six female divas of various ages, and one honorary male diva, entice with their soulful singing and cultural sophistication. The singers have mixed backgrounds in professional theatre and community performance, representing the diversity of offerings available in Melbourne’s independent arts initiatives as well as mainstages. 

The songs are beautifully arranged by Adam Starr and highlight the resonances between klezmer-inspired traditional Yiddish music and mid-20th century jazz. Yiddish classics like ‘Padam, Padam’, written by Edith Piaf collaborator Norbert Glanzberg from Kadya Molodowsky’s 1924 poem, give voice to how the enchantment of the song can become an enchantment with the singer. This is a theme that’s developed by Yiddish renditions of the jazz standard ‘Autumn Leaves’ from original lyrics by Johnny Mercer, and a Yiddish rendition of ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’, which is a witty twist on an old favourite. 

Read: Theatre review: Drizzle Boy, Bille Brown Theatre

The overall effect is of a scope that’s broader than romantic love and that celebrates themes of belonging and togetherness. In a cultural climate influenced by the decision to give a greater voice to Indigenous people in civil and public life, hearing a Welcome to Country from one endangered language to a culture of many endangered languages is especially moving. Yiddish Divas: Into the Red Tent welcomes you in and reminds you to stay in the sepia-tinged space between old world and new, and to consider the cultural riches to be shared in intercultural spaces. 

Yiddish Divas: Into the Red Tent
Kadimah Yiddish Theatre
Kadimah Jewish Cultural Centre, Melbourne
Director: Evelyn Krape
Musical Director: Adam Starr

Cast: Deidre Rubenstein, Karen Feldman, Elisa Gray, Freydi Mrocki, Josh Reuben, Freya Boltman and Noa Coates.

Yiddish Divas will be performing until 26 March 2023.

Vanessa Francesca is a writer who has worked in independent theatre. Her work has appeared in The Age, The Australian and Meanjin