By Deb Filler. At Factory Studio, May 23-28, 2017
She is billed as New Zealand’s only Jewish comic entertainer, and she has a Kiwi accent, though she lives and works in Toronto after also having lived in New York where she trained as an actress. She is also Jewish, without apology for her ethnic jokes and considerable fun with Yiddish—a hybrid, as she puts it, of High German and phlegm. And the joke about Yiddish sets a tone for her 90-minute stand-up routine, that she performs in casual dress with the help of only a single black stool, a microphone, and a guitar (on which she whips up audience singalong participation for popular folk ballads and pop hits dating back to the 60s and 70s). She jokes that the usual demographic for her travelling show is a little older, and like most of her jokes, she does not put a cruel sting on things. She jokes mainly about herself, portraying herself as a shy child with a gift for song—though she tried resisting her mother’s urgings to perform like a young Judy Garland. “It’s so yesterday,” she was apt to protest, but the fact of the matter is that she well knows and often relishes what was yesterday, whether it is Gershwin, Fiddler on the Roof, protest folk songs, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, or Broadway’s old 42nd Street. She obviously shares some of her father Sid’s chauvinism pride in Jewish talent, though her taste is eclectic and not all limited to a single ethnicity, and she has warm presence, wonderful comic timing, a facility for character sketches in two languages, and a wonderful way with anecdotes—especially the ones about her encounters with three great Lennys (Bernstein, Cohen, and Kravitz) that leave an audience gasping with laughter and not a little poignancy.
Her beloved parents survived the Holocaust—and there is an extraordinarily moving anecdote of how Leonard Bernstein played Gershwin in a concentration camp and how he paid tribute to her hardworking father and to her during a concert in Auckland after she took the conductor six loaves of challah baked by her father. It is such a defining quality, this ethnic ability to laugh or cry after nightmare, to continue with life’s complications like an odyssey in search of existential definition. But, perhaps, I am being too hifalutin about all this. The plain fact is that Deb Filler is an entertainer who has you in the palm of her hand from her opening song to her hilarious renditions of “A Hard Day’s Night,” “I Can Get No Satisfaction,” and, ultimately, “My Way” in Yiddish. Her comedy needs no translation.