It is no small feat to recreate the world and emotions of a bygone era. But in his astonishing show celebrating his grandparents, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, who were superstars of the Yiddish theater, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas has done it. And it is a joy.
PBS’s “Great Performances” is broadcasting “The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater” on WNET on March 29, at 8 p.m. (Check local listings for broadcast times elsewhere.) Tilson Thomas, with the help of a team of collaborators, has been refining and perfecting this project for a decade and a half, first by rummaging through libraries, archives and attics to retrieve dazzling mementos from the period, and then by taking the show on the road. The program covers the lives of the Thomashefskys as well as of Yiddish theater itself and the history of the era.
Much love went into this production, particularly through Tilson Thomas’s personal memories of his grandmother. Not surprisingly, Tilson Thomas, who conducts the ensemble of the New World Symphony, also convincingly conveys the theatricality — and some of the hilarious shtick and off-stage shenanigans — of his grandparents. (He also has the best command of Yiddish in the cast.)