New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

Theodore Bikel: “Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears”
The National Yiddish Theatre--Folksbiene, Manhattan

One thinks of Theodore Bikel as larger than life, as he belts out a song or talks to God in “Fiddler on the Roof.” But now we have a different Theodore Bikel, in his current one-man show. Portraying the noted Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem through song and story, Bikel offers us a muted, endearing performance. The show, written and performed by Bikel and titled “Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears,” now enjoys its off-Broadway premiere. It honors the 150th anniversary of Aleichem’s birth in the Ukraine. The show, presented by The National Yiddish Theatre — Folksbiene, runs through mid-December.

Whether the show itself calls for this down-sized performance--or whether it’s the reality of an aging Bikel—is difficult to say. In any event, we are introduced to a smaller, quieter, bent-over performer. While Bikel still has his deep melodic voice, it is far softer, more contained.

As Bikel carries Sholom Aleichem (born Sholom Rabinovich) through his childhood, young adult years, and migrations between Europe and America, he embroiders the tale with appropriate songs. Highlights are “Oyfn Pripetshik” (The Fireplace), in which young boys are seen studying the Torah at Cheder, and “Der Bal Agole” (Coachman), an amusing comment on old-time transportation.

Bikel sings the tunes in Yiddish, then smoothly moves into his own English translations. This is fortunate, since the overhead translations flashed on a screen are in Russian, not English. While Bikel’s translations save the day for those who do not speak Yiddish, English supertitles would have been helpful.

Directed by Derek Goldman, the show is disarmingly simple in its staging, and makes for an intimate audience experience. Robbie Hayes’ minimal stage set is a series of arcs, with two instrumentalists (pianist Tamara Brooks and accordionist Merima Kljuco) seen in the background. Occasional scenes are flashed on the screen, emphasizing that shtetl world which formed the essence of Sholom Aleichem’s stories.

For those of us in the States, Sholom Aleichem’s best known stories are those of Tevya, the milkman. Tevya went on to become the hero of Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick’s “Fiddler on the Roof.”  Such songs as
“Tradition, Tradition,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” and “Sunrise, Sunset” have become famous around the world, as has the musical itself.

While Bikel has created an appealingly underplayed little piece, it is disappointing that he offers no “Fiddler” songs—the musical conduit which carries most Americans (Jews and Gentiles) back to the world of Sholom Aleichem.

-- Irene Backalenick
Nov. 14, 2009

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