You could tell it was Yiddish night at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. When honoree Michael Tilson Thomas, conducting a pared down New York Philharmonic Orchestra, stepped forward with opening remarks, cries went out from the audience, “Louder, louder!” It was like the old days when audiences attending the once-flourishing Yiddish theater in New York were notoriously vocal. The amplification was raised following a burst of laughter, and Thomas started again, beginning his show that honors the tradition of Yiddish theater, and more specifically, his renowned pioneering grandparents, stars Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky.
The occasion was a sold-out gala benefit (April 6, 2011) for the National Yiddish Theatre—Folksbiene, with Tilson Thomas chosen to be honored. It was a fitting choice, as he has been doing his affectionate show in various venues. I caught it during the summer of 2009 at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony and it was such an enjoyable event that my wife Lillian and I wanted to experience it again. This time it was equally rewarding.
The conductor led the Philharmonic playing the music that was performed in the early 20th century when the Thomaskevskys were all the rage among newly-arrived immigrants. The era was also recaptured by a combination of Tilson Thomas’s witty narration, film clips of posters, family photos and the like, sound recordings and live performances. Even the conductor got into the act performing a number called “Who Do You Suppose Married My Sister?” It was originally presented as a spoof of Boris’s well-known womanizing.
The program at Avery Fisher was directed by Patricia Birch. Illustrating the past were Judy Blazer as Bessie and Shuler Hensley as Boris, with Ronit Widmann-Levy and Eugene Brancoveanu entertainingly taking on various roles. Blazer was a particular standout, running the gamut of musical performances and dramatic expressions defining Bessie’s life and her eventual separation from her philandering husband. Blazer’s work was particularly dynamic. Her co-stars also had striking applause-earning turns.
Tilson Thomas, as well as being able to elicit the style of the Yiddish theatrical music from a contemporary orchestra, has a remarkable stage presence. The subject is obviously very dear to his heart. While he didn’t know his grandfather who died before that could happen, his colorful grandmother influenced him in many ways and has prompted his ongoing tribute. He got a big laugh when he quoted her dying words as, “Never sign a release.”
I recall as a youngster taking my grandmother to see various later Yiddish theater shows on Second Avenue, including those starring her favorite, actress Molly Picon, and my favorite, Menasha Skulnik. I have great memories, and am grateful to the venerable Folksbiene for carrying on the tradition with its current stage productions, and in this instance, for dedicating an evening to Tilson Thomas, who is also in his way keeping the tradition alive. For information on the Folksbiene visit www.folksbiene.org.