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Review: A Yiddish tribute. What's not to like?

December 19, 2008 |  3:12 pm

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To say that Michael Tilson Thomas, the celebrated conductor and music director of the San Francisco Symphony, comes from a Yiddish theater family is like saying Caroline Kennedy has a background in politics. That's not the half of it.

Though you wouldn't guess it from his patrician-sounding name, which obscures it as deftly as Joseph Conrad hid Józef Korzeniowski, Tilson Thomas is the grandson of Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, the patriarch and matriarch of American Yiddish theater, figures of towering talent and ambition with ego and temperament to match.

Thomashefsky On Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Tilson Thomas paid a warm and nostalgic tribute to his grandparents with "The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater." In a three-hour show (to be repeated Saturday at 8), he turned the Disney stage into an intimate cabaret, complete with a small Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra and random tables and chairs, to tell the story of "two kids from Nowhere in the Ukraine" who ended up as celebrities beyond their wildest dreams.

After all, the young Boris, who began as a cantorial boy soprano in the Ukraine, couldn't have foreseen a career that turned him into America's first Yiddish theater matinee idol, a man who boasted not only his own theater, his own newspaper and his own publishing house, but also his own army. When he did "A Yiddish Hamlet," the credits read, "translated and improved by Boris Thomashefsky," and when he died in 1939, 30,000 mourners filled the streets of New York.

Boris' wife, Bessie, especially after she left her womanizing husband, was no slouch herself. She not only became a major star in shows written especially for her, such as 1912's "Chantshe in America," she also became a trendsetter and role model for generations of female Jewish performers. Often she would look at her disbelieving grandson and proclaim sadly, "You don't know who I am."

That grandson takes enthusiastically to the role of storyteller and celebrator. With a polished manner that reflects the evening's previous incarnations across the country, Tilson Thomas performs a number of functions, mixing theatrical and family history and even singing a rousing version of a 1910 tribute to his grandfather, "Who Do You Suppose Married My Sister? Thomashefsky," written by the same pair who penned "Shine On, Harvest Moon."

Tilson Thomas also serves as a kind of master of ceremonies for the evening, introducing the numerous songs from his grandparents' repertory as well as the singers who perform them. Perhaps because the Thomashefskys were such larger-than-life individuals, it takes two energetic actors and singers apiece (Judy Blazer and Tamara Wapinsky for Bessie, Neal Benari and Eugene Brancoveanu for Boris) to do their work justice.

The cultural archaeology Tilson Thomas has done to prepare for this show is its most impressive accomplishment. He has dug up and orchestrated songs and overtures that haven't had a forum like this for decades, things such as a love duet from 1892's "Alexander, Crown Prince of Jerusalem" and the always popular "March of the Jewish Suffragettes" from 1915's "Chantshe," and brought them alive onstage.

These songs come complete with subtitles projected on a large screen and with context provided by Tilson Thomas; his explanation of the tricky title of his grandparents' biggest hit, "Dos Pintele Yid," is especially good. And the actual performances of his grandparents -- he has discovered a recording of Bessie doing her celebrated "Minka on the Telephone" routine and Boris luminous in a brief clip from the 1935 film "Bar Mitzvah" -- are priceless.

The most charming parts of the evening are Tilson Thomas' personal memories of Bessie (Boris died before he was born), complete with family snapshots. With a grandmother famous for her trouser roles, it was perhaps fated that the first black tie and tails Tilson Thomas ever wore were hers. More unexpected were her last words to her grandson: "Never, never sign a release."

Tilson Thomas encouraged audience participation Thursday, particularly rhythmic clapping, and the opening-night audience (which included cabaret veteran Joel Grey) ate it up, kvelling at his opening "Nu, vos macht a Yid?" (How is a Jew doing?) and other uses of Yiddish. The crowd was clearly up for a shared experience, and that is what it got.

If there is anything to kvetch about in "The Thomashefskys" (and what would the Yiddish theater be without people complaining?), it's that although the excellent notes in the Disney Hall program are quite serious, the evening goes heavier than it needs to on schmaltz and Eastern European accents that risk trivializing the material for comic effect. A middle ground would have been nice.

But as Bette Davis, definitely not a Yiddish theater veteran, said in "Now, Voyager," "Don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars." And how.

"The Thomashefskys," Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Saturday. $42-$147. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com

-- Kenneth Turan

Photo: Michael Tilson Thomas accompanies Judy Blazer as Bessie Thomashefsky at Disney Hall. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

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