Review: 'Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears' at Theater J

By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Theater J's latest offering, "Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears," is a world premiere solo vehicle written, sung and acted -- with touching reverence and some verve -- by showbiz luminary Theodore Bikel. His 90-minute homage, directed by Derek Goldman, has halting moments, and feels more like a labor of love than a definitive piece of stagecraft. But it will no doubt appeal to passionate admirers of Aleichem's vibrant writing, theatergoers with an interest in Yiddish (the language in which the author principally wrote) and, of course, fans of the 84-year-old Bikel, whose whopping list of credits includes more than 2,000 performances in "Fiddler on the Roof."

The show is a loose framework of biography around a tantalizing sampling of Aleichem's fiction (including his Tevye tales, the source material for "Fiddler"). Dressed in a tan suit, his white hair and beard and wire-framed glasses gleaming, Bikel's Aleichem moves from wistfully reminiscing to cracking roguishly dry jokes to impersonating figures from his childhood. The pace of some of these sequences could bear tightening: Bikel's delivery can feel ambling, even hesitant -- realistic, perhaps, given that he's depicting an aging, ailing writer, but not ideal for sweeping an audience along.

Not all the life-saga material meanders. In one fetching sequence, Sholom Aleichem -- a pen name meaning "peace be with you"; his real name was Sholem Rabinowitz -- evokes his grandfather conjuring up visions of the afterlife, executing an ecstatic shuffle as he imagines the dancing prophetess Miriam. In another scene, one of the funniest, Aleichem satirizes cut-rate American funerals, which, he maintains, come complete with cut-rate weather (cold and drizzly).

But the show really lights up when it plunges into the world of Aleichem's fiction, especially -- no surprise here -- when Bikel slips into Tevye's shoes. He glides effortlessly from mood to mood: Good-humored carping about marital spats gives way to wrenching accounts of family tragedies, which yield to resigned philosophizing and lovingly prickly outbursts to God. A Tevye-free sketch about a zany tram ride in Kasrilevke (the town where Aleichem set many stories) is equally compelling. One is left wishing the show had featured more of Aleichem's inventions.

Both the storytelling and the biography benefit from Robbie Hayes's simple but eloquent set: chairs and a lectern (Aleichem wrote standing up), framed by a rough-contoured lavender arch on which images are periodically projected, including black-and-white photographs of New York tenements and Jewish communities from the turn of the 20th century. Other projections include colorful dreamlike iconography (enigmatic figures, a train) created by projection designer Zachary Borovay. Hayes and Borovay say they drew inspiration and imagery from Marc Chagall; Dan Covey's resonant lighting also sometimes seems to cite Chagall's palette.

At the back of the stage, behind another arch and a scrim, sit pianist Tamara Brooks (the production's musical director and Bikel's wife) and accordionist Merima Kljuco, who supply stirring musical underscoring. They also accompany the songs, which Bikel delivers with relish in both Yiddish and English.

Bikel translated many of the songs; this is a show that constitutes a cultural bequest as much as it depicts one. "Does anyone worry about legacy?" Bikel asks rhetorically, addressing the audience in his own persona -- as a man who has rendered Aleichem's creations widely and tunefully accessible, and who has invested energy into preserving Yiddish. After sitting through this production, audiences will be more likely to answer that question with an emphatic yes.

Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears, written and performed by Theodore Bikel. Directed by Derek Goldman; music direction, Tamara Brooks; costume design, Frank Labovitz; scenic artist, Luciana Stecconi; sound consultant, Matt Otto. 90 minutes. Through Jan. 18 at Theater J, at the D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. For tickets, call 800-494-TIXS; for information, call 202-777-3230 or visit

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