by Lucy Allen
I’m going to preface this review with two very important facts about myself: One is that I don’t speak Yiddish. The other, I’m somewhat ashamed to say, is that I’m fairly unfamiliar with the work of Theodore Bikel, an icon in theatre and television. This might be a bit of a deterrent in choosing to see a show like Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears, which opened last night at the Winter Garden Theatre, but Bikel manages to keep the show grounded, entertaining and at some points heartbreaking.
Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tearsis a one-man show about Sholom Alchaim, a 19th century Jewish writer who was best known to me for inspiring the creation of the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Bikel plays himself, Alchaim and even Tevye throughout the show, as well as a myriad of characters that were pivotal in Alchaim’s life.
Sholom Aleichem for the most part relies on simple storytelling, and this in my opinion was what Bikel did best. There was no need for an elaborate set or expensive effects. Bikel simply painted a world for the audience using his words and gave a flavour of old world culture with several songs he composed.
The most elaborate thing on the stage was the lighting design used on the back wall, which shifted and merged with his story as the show went on. Sometimes the background would show splashes of colour, other times a cityscape, and many other times photographs of forgotten faces of the past. It had both a touching and haunting effect.
There were a few moments in the show where both I and my show partner Erica felt somewhat out of the loop when it came to references. It wasn’t only the moments when Bikel would switch to Yiddish. Sometimes jokes were made mentioning some place or person that was completely unfamiliar to me but that would make the rest of the audience burst out in laughter. These moments are few though, and I have to keep in mind that the night I went a lot of the audience understood Yiddish.
What kept the show going was Bikel, who had the arduous task of performing a one-man show yet made it look like a stroll in the park. His switches between characters were clear, his singing was great, and he was easily able to switch from a light-hearted tone to a tear-jerking revelation without missing a beat.
In fact, the only thing that made the show unenjoyable in any capacity was the surprising number of cell phones left on during the show (it still remains a mystery to me that after years of being told to turn them off, some people still think they don’t count). Seeing as how that’s out of the performer’s hands, I’d say that Bikel was fairly successful in getting his message across.
Sholom Aleichem’s very specific flavour might not be for everyone, but it opened up a world previously unknown to me and that to me is what good theatre does. Bikel invites everyone in with open arms, and the result an engaging and heart-warming performance. There are only a few performances, so if I were you I’d book my tickets now!
–Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears is playing at the Winter Garden Theatre (198 Yonge Street) until October 18
-Shows start at 8pm with a 2pm matinee on Oct. 17 & 18
-Ticket prices range from $40-75.
-Tickets can be bought by calling 416-366-7723, toll-free 1-800-708-6754 or by visiting ticketmaster.ca