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Brooklyn Braggin' Rites

October 5, 2006 By:
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Rock 'n' roots: Jake Ehrenreich
Brooklyn dodger? Nah, this guy welcomes the old hometown with open arms, fielding questions about the old neighborhood from audiences in what may be off-Broadway's only bilingual production. Yiddish is spoken here; so is pinching the cheeks.

And the guy on stage is the ultimate pinch-hitter. Some actors enjoy ripping up their roots; he'd rather water them.

Why not? It's all Jake by him.

Actually, it's not. The correct expression would be, it's all Yankle Yitzchok Ehrenreich by him. But then, where are you going to find a marquee that big?

"A Jew Grows in Brooklyn" -- and Jake Ehrenreich -- grows on you. This is his life story, and he's its Jewish Ralph Bellamy.

Certainly, "A Jew Grows in Brooklyn" is shorter than "This Is Your Life, Yankle, son of Holocaust survivors/professional drummer/opening act for Richie Havens/Broadway actor/ringer for Ringo/entrepreneur/husband/father/summa-cum-laughter graduate of the Catskills."

But how many trees would you have to grow in Brooklyn to accommodate such a big playbill?

So, he says, call him Jake.

And, more than anything his performance at the Lambs Theater in New York just prior to its post-holiday move to 37 Arts Theater, where it reopens Oct. 11, is a shtetl shout-out. It's as if he's invited the neighbors in from Bensonhurst for a danish and tea, and they stayed to hear his life story. They have his back as he brings them back to the 'hood.

Nu, Jake, I'm here. I've got my danish, a vassele of te. Start talking.

You may not have to be Jewish to love rye bread, but how about his wry humor, shot out of a cannon like toasted varnishkas? Could you love the Borscht Belt without caring about borscht?

"People seem to access the show, Jewish or not," he says. "It's really the American immigrant story and the joy of it."

His own as a first-generation immigrant generates knowing nods, sighs and shrugs from the audience. But if the "Our Crowd" crowding the theater is any indication, this Brooklyn-born Jew may have the theatrical annuity Hal Holbrook has had as Mark Twain.

The difference? Mark Twain wasn't Jewish.

And Holbrook, as good as he is, never sang "Meet the Mets" in Yiddish as Ehrenreich did before a home crowd. And there are fans who would probably trade in their upcoming World Series tickets just to hear Ehrenreich introduce Jewish boy Shawn Green by his Yiddish name, which he did on "Jewish Heritage Night."

Yes, he loves the Mets, but, who knows, his musical talents at one time could have landed him at that other New York Met had the music major stayed in school at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and not dropped out to pursue a professional engagement.

He could have been a contenda -- or at least a drummer. He could have been Ringo. Wait. He was Ringo. "I really enjoyed doing that," says Ehrenreich of touring as the Jewish member of the Fab Four in an international company of "Beatlemania."

A beat ... "Wait," he says. "Ringo is Jewish? How could I not know that?"

Wait a second, Jake, you didn't also think "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" was about Jewelers Row? So they share a heritage if not technique: "I play differently than he does."

Okay, but can Ringo sing "Yiddish mama" and send teeny-boppers into shrieks and sighs? And sighs do matter as evidenced by the audience enjoying Ehrenreich's echt trip back in time.

Not that you have to be from Brooklyn to love his show, but it does help. And Ehrenreich helps himself to his share of schmaltz.

But the show is good and clean and fun. It's a schtickle of schnecken, not schmutz. And to boot, he's cute.

And, you know, it hasn't exactly been easy getting this "Brooklyn" show off-Broadway bound.

One attorney/producer he went to for backing laughed in his face, which wouldn't have been bad but Ehrenreich wasn't doing his show at the time. She recommended not New York but maybe finding a space in the Condo Catskills of Florida, where each seat would come with a defibrillator.

"I expected that kind of reaction. People are inclined to look at the negative."

Especially, some thought, when audiences would have to be seated at an incline. But such stereotypes don't play out in the symphonic world of Jake Ehrenreich, who has found audiences young and old. Young? "Well ... younger, 40 to 60. Baby-boomers and just below."

Just beneath the surface of this nice guy is a ... nice guy. But if some consider his act corny, well, lend him your ears. It's his life out there, but not his "outta there" life.

Don't forget, he reminds, he also has had a "totally non-Jewish life" as a regular on the rock 'n' roll scene, "where all of what you are is defined by what's hip."

Hop back to this life and he isn't ignoring the past. "Just because I go back to do this show doesn't mean that I negate other parts of my life."

So, as he ponders spending possibly at least the next four seasons doing his "Brooklyn" gig, would he ever consider going uptown? Couldn't "Jersey Boys" use a Jewish boy?

"No, it would be a travesty of justice if I did this show about family and neglect my family in the process," which he believes any Broadway engagement would mean.

He's not one to travel those mean streets of New York, although commuting from his home in upstate New York now is no sweet schlep.

"But that's why I have the schedule I do," he says of packing performances over a shorter period of time so this drummer can bang the pots and pans slowly with his 8-year-old boychick at home.

And does little Joseph Dov-Behr, named after the actor's uncles, Polish victims of the Holocaust, understand what his dad does for a living? "All the Father's Day cards he gave me were about my show," marvels Ehrenreich.

Indeed, if his play-with-music could be subtitled, it would be "We are family," with kudos to his folks -- his octogenarian father is still living, albeit Alzheimer's disease tragically seems to have taken a wicked affinity for other members of his family -- and wife, with whom he had a traditional wedding in the Catskills, and son.

And don't expect any Henny Youngman yutz jokes here. Ehrenreich's wasn't a march down the oys -- he is joyously, happily married he will tell you to the most wonderful woman in the world.

What's not to like here?

He even throws in his old Bar Mitzvah pictures. And who would know that right here, off-Broadway, a 50-year-old sweet song-and-dance man tapping into his talent and rich tapestry of a heritage would help audiences rediscover a Jewish balm for the heart, a salve for the soul?

But then, maybe, just maybe, that's why they call it ... "Mama Lotion." 

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