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Life of a Star : Sandy Kanan parlays a doctoral dissertation into a solo show about Yiddish theater and a remarkable actress's 80-year career.

October 16, 1992|JANICE ARKATOV | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Janice Arkatov writes regularly about theater for The Times

Molly Picon lives--at least if Sandy Kanan has anything to say about it.

"I always wanted to play her, but I didn't feel worthy," said the actress, whose UCLA doctoral dissertation became the springboard for her solo show about Picon, "I Sing!," playing Wednesday matinees at the Richard Basehart Playhouse in Woodland Hills. (Concurrently, Sunday matinee performances continue at The Complex in Hollywood through Dec. 13.) Kanan, whose study of the assimilation of second-generation Jews in the Depression originally led her to her subject, was attracted to the history of Yiddish theater and Picon's remarkable 80-year career.

"In 1981, I met her and we began to correspond; in December, 1982, I went to New York to spend time with her," Kanan explained. "She had Alzheimer's and knew that her career was coming to an end." Over time, she added, "the relationship changed to a more personal one, mentor/student. We talked about her career, my career."

In 1976, Kanan and her then-husband and daughter had formed Judaic Drama Ensemble, which developed and performed 55 Jewish-themed shows on live radio and at local synagogues, convalescent homes and community centers.

But with "I Sing!" Kanan is strictly on her own. In the two-hour show, she sings nine songs and essays about Picon from ages 5 to 85--plus six of the actress's famous characters (Yankele, Yiddle, Mamale, Clara Weiss, Mrs. Baker and Yenta) and 21 other people in Picon's life, including her mother, grandmother and husband.

"I'm constantly changing," Kanan says with a laugh. "On stage, I've got five hatracks, a gray and a white wig, a costume trunk and a chair--and I change right out there, in front of the audience."

Picon did not live to see this show--she died April 5, at age 94, three hours before Kanan was to begin her first preview--but the actress believes that her inspiration was there that night and continues to guide her in spirit. Then, in August, her musical director, Bruce A. Friedman, who had helped create the show over the past two years, died.

"It's been rough," Kanan says. "I've been my own producer, my own director. Now I have a new pianist in the pit, Ingrid Rupel, who's doing transposing and rearrangements."

Although the show is constantly changing--it's grown from its original 75-minute length when it played around town in Jeannine Frank's Parlor Performances--Kanan admits that Jewish seniors continue to be the core audience.

"A lot of them are widows," she said. "Sundays are often the loneliest time of the week."

For the Cleveland-born actress, who grew up locally and has been performing since age 3, the prospect of the play's indefinite run--and by extension, her ongoing attachment to Picon--is a happy one.

"I can't think of a better way to spend my life," Kanan said.

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "I Sing!"

Location: Richard Basehart Playhouse, 20128-B Victory Blvd., Woodland Hills

Hours: 2:30 p.m. Wednesdays. Indefinitely.

Price: $8.50-$10.

Call: (818) 704-1845; for group sales (818) 986-2908.

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