by Lawrence Bush
Gilbert and Sullivan themselves could not have outdone British cabaret artist Daniel Cainer’s talent for compressing narrative, rhyme, emotion, and wit into songs, as displayed in his tremendously entertaining (if inadequately titled) one-man show, “Jewish Chronicles.”
Cainer sits behind a Yamaha piano (its logo altered to read “Yamalka”), projects a few images on the wall, and sings songs for eighty minutes that tell captivating stories of immigration, business partnerships gone sour, unrequited love (“Under the table Isaac and Rae/speak with their fingers what their lips couldn’t say”), parental adultery, and rabbinical drug addiction (“What did he think he was doing/treating every day like it was Purim?”). His tales are mostly about Orthodox Jews of yesterday’s generations who succumb to their yetzer hara, their lustful impulse, regardless of tradition — or else deprive themselves of fulfillment by staying on the Jewish straight-and-narrow.
Cainer’s work on his “Yamalka” is haute show-biz, his voice is powerful and versatile, and his lyrics are like Robin Williams rants with delightful rhythms and rhymes. He masterfully avoids shmaltz and pathos, and he does not journey into Big Jewish Ideas (Zionism, Revolution, Teshuve or such), holiday sentiment, ethical uplift, or clap-your-hands joy. He simply seats us with his ancestors for tea and tales — tales that could be published as exquisite little short stories.
He’s playing at the Soho Playhouse in New York until November 16th, and at the Santa Monica Playhouse December 11-21. Below find one of his songs, Surbiton Washerama, about his parents’ adulteries. Give it a listen, and attend one of his intimate shows — he’s really terrific.
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.