The story of Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky is a classic American success narrative. Although they were born only a few miles apart in “the middle of a Ukrainian nowhere,” as their grandson Michael Tilson Thomas puts it, they met in Baltimore when he was performing with a traveling Yiddish theater troupe and she was a star-struck girl working in a tobacco factory. They went on to fame and acclaim, stars of the Yiddish theater from the late-19th Century until the Depression.
Typically, it was left to the third generation, Tilson Thomas, to tell their story. “The Thomashefskys: Music & Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater,” is a permanent video record of their legacy as he sees it — a buoyant, likeable two hours of musical numbers and storytelling by a man who is a distinguished musician in his own right.
Tilson Thomas has vivid memories of his grandma Bessie, who frequently baby-sat for him. She, in turn, had her own memories of the climb from a three-cents-an-hour factory job to stardom, which she recounted in several autobiographies, with increasing candor, as she grew older. By contrast, Boris died in 1939, long before his grandson’s birth, so the show, which Tilson Thomas wrote, tends to reflect her version of events rather more than Boris’.
The story that emerges from the mists of personal memory, public record and theatrical legend is a surprisingly familiar one, not dissimilar to that of hundreds of backstage musicals, melodramas and biopics from Hollywood. He’s the rising producer-playwright-actor who discovers a talented young girl, makes her a star, and shares the fruits of their success until his wandering eye and extravagant ways drive a wedge between them. The difference is that the Thomashefskys played out their family saga in Yiddish, in theaters on the Lower East Side instead of Broadway, for an almost exclusively Jewish audience.
The other difference is the hybrid form in which their story is told this time: part concert, part theater piece, part personal reminiscence, and part popular lecture on Yiddish-American culture. It’s an awkward form, made more so by the staging for the New World Center in Miami Beach, where the performance was filmed. At least as it appears in the DVD, the New World Center seems to be much more a concert space than a theatrical venue, with the orchestra taking up most of the stage and leaving a thin strip for the small but spirited cast (Judy Blazer as Bessie, Shuler Hensley as Boris, Ronit Widmann-Levy and Eugene Brancoveanu as everyone else). On the positive side, the shallowness of the stage makes it easy for Tilson Thomas to (almost literally) bounce back and forth between his roles as conductor, narrator and even singer. But the staging by Patricia Birch feels cramped and uncomfortable, sensations that are only heightened by the seemingly arbitrary choices of camera angles and cutting by Gary Halvorson, who directed the video.
Yet despite its shortcomings, “The Thomashefskys,” like Boris himself, succeeds through a pleasing blend of charm, talent and chutzpah. Hensley captures Boris’ old-style theatrical bombast and brio splendidly, while Blazer’s Bessie burns with charisma. The New World Symphony, a post-graduate orchestral academy created by Tilson Thomas in the late ’80s, plays with impressive skill and musicianship, and the singing is uniformly exceptional, particularly from Brancoveanu, whose rich baritone is a real treat. The material is a representative collection of the songs that were heard on Second Avenue during the Thomashefskys’ heyday; they range from excerpts of Avraham Goldfaden’s 1878 hit operetta “Koldunye” to the frisky Yiddish vaudeville numbers by Joseph Rumshinsky that provide the performance with a high-energy encore.
Most of all, the program benefits enormously from its host. Tilson Thomas speaks of his grandmother with such love and pride, conducts so energetically and even sings (an obscure Nora Bayes-Jack Norworth tune, “Who Do You Suppose Married My Sister? Thomashefsky!”) with such a twinkle in his eye that one cannot help but be won over.
“The Thomashefskys: Music & Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater” is available on DVD now.