Light your Chanukah candles, eat your latkes and spin your dreidels! Let’s all dance Di Mezinke! Chanukah is here, and Theater J has given us reason for rejoicing. Theo’s back in Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears at Theater J , and he’s brought along two of his very best friends – Sholom Aleichem and Tevye, and two great musicians to help him spin his stories – his wife, the pianist Tamara Brooks, and accordionist Merima Kljuco.
If you have ever had the honor of sitting down and interviewing Theodore Bikel, as I did last year at Theater J (podcast) and (interview) or have ever listened to one of his dozens of Elektra LPS or CDs, or ever heard him sing “Edelweiss” on the original Broadway cast CD or LP, or watched him perform on the stage – most recently here at Theater J in The Disputation and Shylock – three words always come to mind – passion, passion, passion.
On opening night, you could feel the anticipation and love from his appreciative audience as they awaited his grand entrance. Greeted by loud applause, this legendary performer, singer, activist, and now at age 84 – playwright – dressed in a tan three-piece suit, a white shirt and red tie and white gloves (as he explained as Sholom Aleichem, to prevent himself from biting his nails to the bone and bleeding)- walked into a soft spotlight – with Projection Designer Zack Borovay beaming pictures on the front arch of Robbie Hayes’ set from Theo’s roles in The Disputation, Sound of Music, and 200 Hotels, and of course Theo asTevye (a role he has played over 2000 times). And then Theo Bikel – the actor – began, speaking about being remembered after he is gone, “What will you remember when these seats are cold? Will you remember me? What will remain?” The first tears started to flow in the house.
When he started singing his first song, “Veer Vet Blain” (“Who Will Remain”- Bikel provided the English translations for the Yiddish songs used in the show) and began the first of many “Yum hubbub by bum by byby bums,” laughter, hand clapping, foot tapping and “nachas” – immense joy – spread throughout the house, and it didn’t take long for the audience to “Yum yububum” along with him. The audience went messhugah! And why not? With a twinkle in his eye, and that booming voice and clear diction (unmiked may I say) and that gorgeous singing voice, Bikel oozed self-confidence and charm.
Immediately, he was off and running, sharing his love for his heritage, for Yiddish, the music of his forefathers and his youth, and most of all- to fulfill his goal of teaching all of us- Jew and gentile – that Sholom Aleichem was no “one hit” playwright and author. Here was Bikel – the true entertainer- the “kosher ham”- embracing his audience with a Tevye-like bear hug, refusing to let go, even as the last curtain call and applause ended. Even when I returned home that night, I felt Theo was still there with me.
And what kind of ride where we in for? It was an emotional rollercoaster, full of laughter and tears. It was an evening of great Borscht belt one-liners, for wasn’t Sholom Aleichem the Shecky Greene and Neil Simon of his time?
For instance, when meeting Mark Twain, he told the “Tom Sawyer” author, “They call me the Yiddish Mark Twain.” And Twain replied, “They are wrong. I am the American Sholom Aleichem.” When arriving in America, he was surprised to learn that Jewish Americans ate bagels and smoked fish for their morning meal which Sholom Aleichem called, “breakfish.” And although he found humor in his new homeland, he found immense sadness as he proclaimed that although sickness and poverty were the oppressors for Jews back in Russia, the oppressors here in the U.S., were fellow Jews. “I am having a hard time dealing with this new country.”
There were heartwarming tales of trying to find his childhood friend Shmulik, (whose innocent face is projected on the main arch at the end of the show), who disappeared one day, who could spin stories about spirits and devils, and the candles street lights of Prague. “Because of his stories, I was determined to become a storyteller. Every Jew is on a journey from Jerusalem to Jerusalem. This writer is on a journey from Shmulik to Shmulik.”
There is a wonderful projection of swirling Hebrew letters as the Yiddish Song, “Oyfin Pripetshik,” the song about learning the alef bet is sung sweetly by Mr. Bikel, and after the sweetness is over, we are then thrust into a funny story about a fierce Rabbi whose only technique was “whipping” his students, even if they didn’t deserve it. And my favorite story – when Sholom Aleichem had writer’s block, his small daughter squeezed his finger, and after the squeeze, he began writing again. Silly, huh? But in the hands of the master story teller -Theodore Bikel- it’s golden.
Of course, a Theodore Bikel/Sholom Aleichem show must allow time for Tevye the Milkman to entertain us, and kvetch to us about his wife Golde, and kibbitz with us, and Bikel doesn’t disappoint. As he explains, Tevye, the Milkman is so close to him because, “I have a passion for poor Jews, They are an art. I can show you what I can do with poverty.” When Tevye updates the audience about the state of his five daughters, some of the news is funny and some is very sad – more laughter and tears.
I saw and wrote about this show’s debut at this year’s Page to Stage Festival in September at The Kennedy Center, It was a work in progress, and the new and improved version, which runs 25 minutes shorter at 95 minutes, is tighter and more focused. And, I can’t applaud enough the Theater J production’s technical team’s contributions: Jason Arnold’s lighting design, Frank Labovitz’s simple but effective costumes, Robbie Haye’s intimate set which allows the brilliant musicians – Tamara Brooks and Merima Kljuco – to blend in and not overpower Mr. Bikel. But, it’s Zack Borovay’s gorgeous projections – which puts you right in the middle of Mr. Bikel’s stories – in the shtetl, in the cheder, and in the lower East Side of Manhattan. You get to know Mr. Bikel the actor, Sholom Aleichem the writer, and his characters come alive in front of you through Mr. Borovay’s brilliant “You are there” design.
Here are my favorite two moment of the show. First, I loved watching Theodore Bikel let go – throwing up his arms to the heavens -Tevye-like – and sliding across the stage while dancing and singing “Di Mezinke,” danced by Jewish parents when their youngest Jewish child gets married. You can just hear the sense of relief of the parents when Theo sings it – something like, “Free at Last, Free at last, thank G-d almighty, we are free at last.”
Then there was Theodore Bikel’s emotional rendition of “A Sudenyu – The Feast” As Jews, we are reminded that through the laughter and tears, the hardships and joys, one day, when the Messiah comes, Moses, his sister Miriam (a great dancer we are told) and David and King Solomon will be there at a great feast to greet the Messiah – with us! This was one my father’s favorite songs, which is usually performed as a duet (Mr. Bikel sings it with The Weavers’ Fred Hellerman on his CD/LP “Theodore Bikel Sings Jewish Folk Songs”).
“What will you remember when these seats are cold? Will you remember me? What will remain?”
Until the Messiah comes, we have Theodore Bikel – the Yiddish messenger – today’s Sholom Aleichem – to remind us how rich our Jewish heritage and traditions are in this heartwarming, funny and heartbreaking Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears. And after the Messiah comes, I’ll remember Theodore Bikel then, too.
Ah Freilichen Chanukah!” Ah Lichtige Chanukah!
– I am off to NYC for this weekend, to see Kids And Yiddish-Ode to Oy! and Gimpel Tam, a musical based on an Isaac Singer story. two shows on Sunday, December 28th at The Folksbiene -The National Yiddish Theatre. Would it surprise you that the man who had dedicated so much of his time in ensuring that Yiddish theatre in America and the Folksbiene will be flourishing for future generations to enjoy is – none other than – Theodore Bikel?]
[Editor’s Note: For this special performance, we asked the one person on our staff who knows Mr. Bikel best, our columnist Joel Markowitz, to step outside his work on Theatre Schmooze to cover this performance for you.]
Running Time: 1:35. No intermission.
When: Thru January 18, Wed and Thurs at 7:30, Sat at 8:00, Sun at 3:00 PM and 7:30 PM. No Friday performances.
Where: The Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theatre at Theater J, in the Washington, DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th Street, NW in Washington, DC.
Tickets: $42-$55. Call 800 494-TIXS or visit the website.