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Theodore Bikel, 84, Is Acting in his First One-Man Show at Theater J

Theodore Bikel is appearing in
Theodore Bikel is appearing in "Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears," a musical about the pioneering 19th century author, at Theatre J. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
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It's a bit of a reclamation project by an actor who is unafraid to critique some of the beloved shows he's been in. "The Sound of Music," for instance: Bikel was Broadway's original Captain von Trapp opposite Mary Martin, and as a World War II refugee, he knew where the story was soft.

"None of that sense of the vise around your heart," he explained to Rodgers and Hammerstein. "I talked to them about reality. They said, 'It's theater, it's musical comedy, it's good enough; the people will love it.' The people did love it. That's not the only criteria."

"Fiddler," in which Bikel has toured relentlessly, was more substantive, yet was hardly pure Aleichem -- something the current show addresses directly.

"Is 'Fiddler' the be-all and end-all of Sholom Aleichem in American theater?" Bikel asks rhetorically. "If the truth be known, it's a charming show. It's a nice show. But it is what my wife calls 'shtetl lite.' . . . A little bit of tragedy in it, but not too much. I wanted this play to give a fuller rendering of Sholom Aleichem and his world."

Rehearsing, Bikel slips easily into the Tevye section late in the play, singing with force and zest during a wedding song. The music is played live by Brooks on piano and Merima Kljuco on accordion (both are members of Serendipity 4), and Bikel not only found the songs -- largely from the canon of Yiddish folk tunes -- but also did the English translations himself.

The increased role of music is one of the biggest changes of the recent rewriting process, says Roth, who was impressed by Bikel's "encyclopedic" command of Yiddish musical history.

"What's the Yiddish equivalent of 'Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?' " Roth says Bikel was asked at one point. "By golly, he had three songs to choose from."

Bikel coolly regales a listener with details about the melodies, the lyrics, the composers, the circumstances of each song. Of this knowledge, he shrugs: "I know the repertoire."

Apparently his catalogue of showbiz tales is pretty good, too, as you might expect from someone whose film bio alone ranges from an Academy Award nomination for 1958's "The Defiant Ones" to Frank Zappa's "200 Motels." ("The strangest experience," he says of the Zappa picture, noting that he had the sense to turn down the role of the cross-dressing nun eventually played by Keith Moon.)

According to Goldman, the anecdotes during breaks have included tales of the young Bikel being directed by Olivier in "A Streetcar Named Desire" and helping found the Newport Folk Festival. One moment the subject is rabbis, the next it's Bob Dylan.

Goldman says: "It's not just a story, but a resonant, appropriate, funny story that opens up the meaning of what we're working on." The director wondered when the tales would start repeating: "They haven't. It's new stories every time."

The new show moves to Florida next month, and Bikel is shopping it around for more dates after that. Meanwhile, he can look forward to his 85th birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall next June, several weeks after the actual birthday in May. The guitarist's fingernails on his right hand are long and buffed, shaped for playing; he's ready for whatever's next.

"I'd feel guilty," Bikel says, "if I'm idle."

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