Sholem Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 15, 2009
Theodore Bikel's one-man show Sholem Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears is an amalgamation of tales by the famed Yiddish storyteller with some incidental material about Aleichem's history and Bikel's as well, along with nine Yiddish songs. The theme of the show seems to be about preservation of the past—of traditional Jewish ways and values and of the Yiddish language. I'm not sure that Aleichem or Bikel finally make a very compelling case for this position, however. At the very beginning of the show, Bikel (as Aleichem) discourses on his apparent unwillingness to embrace the ideas of assimilation, of tolerance, of progression. And I thought: these inescapable realities are now forever associated with Aleichem via the most famous adaptation of his work—Joseph Stein's book for Fiddler on the Roof, based on the "Tevye" stories, in which a traditional Jewish community learns to transform and grow while holding onto what's most dear. I wondered, after seeing this show, whether Aleichem would have approved of what Stein and his collaborators had done to his stories.
Bikel, of course, is famous for having played Tevye thousands of times. He plays him again here, though not using any of the familiar Fiddler material. Instead, somewhat oddly, he recounts a couple of the lesser (and gloomier) stories of the irrepressible, down-to-earth dairyman and his beautiful daughters. Bikel slightly changes his costume to turn himself into Tevye, and indeed the years seem to melt off of him once the transformation is made (Bikel is 85 years old). But I was startled by the genuinely depressing tales this Tevye has to share with us.
They are, however, entirely in line with the rest of this show: though the subtitle is "Laughter Through Tears," laughter is fairly sparse here. These are, for the most part, dour stories of persecution and oppression and poverty. Their significance is unshakable, but a little more light-hearted material would have been welcome.
Bikel tells the stories in English, but the songs that thread through the show are mostly in Yiddish. Many are translated by Bikel as a repeated chorus or verse in English; supertitles provide Russian translation throughout. Bikel is accompanied by Tamara Brooks (on piano) and Merima Kljuco (on accordion). His voice is strong and clear and beautiful, and the musical segments are in many ways the highlight of the piece. But their foreignness and their oldness, at least to this non-Yiddish speaking audience member, distanced me from them. I remember when Mandy Patinkin did his show Mamaloschen, in which he sang a full concert of Yiddish songs, I was able to take away the idea of how it would feel to arrive in a new country unable to fully understand its language or custom. Here I was only aware of an Old World, one that we may long to preserve but nevertheless is inevitably receding from us.