Who lives, who dies: Hamilton’s Rosh Hashanah message


Can the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” serve up some inspiration for the High Holy Days? Reflecting on how I felt on the night of Feb. 25, on my way out of the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York after seeing “Hamilton” (yes, with the full original cast!), I think the answer is yes.

“Hamilton” is a work of lyrical genius. It’s entertaining, creative and groundbreaking. But above all, “Hamilton” is a deep exploration of the human condition. “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” These existential lyrics appear in many of the show’s songs, and the theme persists throughout the “Hamilton” experience. “Once I wrote this passage, I knew it would be the key to the whole musical,” “Hamilton” creator, writer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda has said. The show is uplifting, depressing, funny, poignant, tragic and inspirational — all at once. The night I saw “Hamilton,” I laughed, cried, sang and felt troubled. Ultimately, I walked away still believing in humanity, filled with hope.

As I contemplate the coming High Holy Days, I look back on how I felt after seeing “Hamilton” as an ideal framework for a meaningful experience. Properly understood, Rosh Hashanah asks us to undertake a deep exploration of the human condition. Indeed, the Unetaneh Tokef prayer poses almost the exact same question as “Hamilton”: “Who shall live, who shall die?” As to “who tells your story,” the Rosh Hashanah Torah readings — like “Hamilton” — offer an honest profile of our story.

In “Hamilton,” we meet the Founding Fathers of the United States for who they really were: heroic, valiant yet flawed human beings. Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton is at once a larger-than-life, overachieving genius and a fatally flawed person whose life was scarred by dysfunctional relationships. Javier Munoz, who took over as the lead in “Hamilton” in July, believes that this honest and realistic portrayal of our nation’s founders (particularly their character flaws) is precisely why the musical’s story exerts such a potent hold on people. “They allow the audience to say, ‘I’m OK the way I am — flawed and human.’ It pulls them in closer.” 

In the same spirit, the Torah readings on Rosh Hashanah offer an honest portrayal of Abraham and Sarah. On a day when we contemplate our own character flaws and imperfect lives, we read about Abraham and Sarah’s troubled relationship, the complex account of Ishmael’s birth, Sarah’s disturbing expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael and the infamous day when Abraham almost slaughtered his own child. Despite all of this, we also look up to Abraham and Sarah as people who helped shape the religion and faith with which we identify. We tell these stories on Rosh Hashanah — the anniversary of the creation of human beings — because they remind us that all people, including those we look up to as our founding patriarchs and matriarchs, are filled with character flaws. Much like the “Hamilton” experience, worshippers who read these stories in the Torah are “pulled in closer” to one of the existential truths that lie behind the Rosh Hashanah experience: Human beings are imperfect, and despite that eternal truth, we never lose hope in our potential to achieve great things.

For 2 1/2 hours, Hamilton’s creative blend of rhythmic hip-hop lyrics, powerful musical arrangements and thought-provoking messages sent me on a journey through the full gamut of human emotions. 

Properly experienced, a Rosh Hashanah service should do the same. The rhythmic lyrics of the liturgical poetry should inspire us to sing and feel uplifted, the powerful music of the shofar should bring us to tears, and the rabbi’s message should be thought provoking. If your Rosh Hashanah experience involves laughter, tears and deep contemplation, and if sometime during services you should feel troubled, inspired, worried and then hopeful, then Rosh Hashanah, like “Hamilton,” will have touched the deepest recesses of your soul.

Of all the characters in “Hamilton,” the one who touched me most deeply was George Washington (played by Chris Jackson). Jackson’s commanding stage presence and soulful singing of every lyric filled me with chills and brought me to tears. I felt privileged to convey my feelings to Jackson after the show, and after meeting him, I felt he was blessed with a deeply unique spiritual quality.

I was therefore not surprised that when I read through the show’s official behind-the-scenes book “Hamilton: The Revolution,” the chapter on Jackson featured a beautiful double-page photo of him and the rest of the cast backstage holding hands in a circle, their eyes closed, with Jackson leading them in a pre-show meditation (something he does before each performance). His message to his colleagues: “Let’s agree that for the next 2 1/2 hours, this is the most important thing we’ll do in our lives, and that everybody — in the audience, on the stage and in the orchestra pit — will leave the theater a better person than when they walked in.”

Let’s hope that this coming Rosh Hashanah, we can approach our services as the most important things we’ll do in our lives, and that everybody — the congregants, the clergy, the volunteer ushers — will leave the synagogue a better person than when they walked in.

Let that be the story we live to tell. 


Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center.

Michael Greif takes on ‘If/Then’


Some choices are no-brainers.

If the musical team of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey were in need of a director to pilot their musical follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Next to Normal,” then the director and guiding force behind that production, Michael Greif, was going to get a phone call.

And if Greif were called for this project, then he would be inclined to clear his busy creative schedule to rejoin the team.

But if producer David Stone also found a way to get Tony Award-winning actress Idina Menzel to star in this musical — marking Menzel’s first return to Broadway since creating the role of Elphaba in “Wicked” in 2003 — that would be even more reason for Greif to jump onboard, having worked with the actress nearly 20 years ago on the groundbreaking rock musical “Rent.”

“It’s not like I needed any further incentive to want to work with Tom and Brian again,” said Greif, 56, a three-time Tony Award-nominated director. “But it was wonderful to imagine a reunion with Idina, particularly in a musical written by Tom and Brian.”

The result, “If/Then,” is currently playing at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre through Jan. 3 as part of a national tour. The musical was developed through a series of workshops and played an out-of-town tryout in Washington, D.C., en route to Broadway, where it ran for just under a year, closing in March 2015. 

In the musical, city planner Elizabeth (Menzel) moves back to New York from Phoenix after a failed marriage. A single, seemingly innocent choice she makes in Madison Square Park sets Elizabeth down two paths with radically different outcomes, both of which are played out on stage through the characters Liz and Beth. The musical follows what happens to Beth, who takes a high-powered job with the city of New York, and to Liz, who misses out on that job but finds love with an Army doctor.

“For me, the story was always about how a woman might fulfill her potential in a variety of ways,” Greif said. “I think that’s a generous and optimistic notion about the world — that we do have the opportunity to frame and perceive things. How we choose to think of something affects what it is. How we rise to certain challenges, how we confront terrible adversity all shape us, and the way in which we cope with those things makes us who we are.” 

Menzel has returned to the role of Elizabeth for the first leg of the tour — which includes the Los Angeles run — along with original Broadway stars Anthony Rapp, LaChanze and James Snyder. The involvement of the four principal cast members made rebuilding the show for the road that much easier, Greif said.

“When you’re making a new musical — and it’s probably been true of every new musical I’ve done — a lot of the development process involves some big changes and being able to withstand those changes,” Greif said. “Like how you cope with adversity when a song gets pulled or a song gets changed or a relationship changes. Often when you’re working on a new play, you’ve got your seat belt on, ready to experience any of those things and then to be able to investigate freshly what you actually are certain is there.

“So coming back together after they ran the show for over a year, knowing that they knew the next couple of weeks of rehearsals wouldn’t involve changes — that, I think, really allows us all to work at a level of great comfort.”

The Brooklyn-born Greif grew up in a working-class home in Brighton Beach. His maternal grandparents were observant Jews, and Greif attended Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah at an Orthodox temple.

“I grew up in a not very observant home close to an observant grandmother,” Greif said. 

As an adult, when he encountered the works of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies (“Dinner With Friends,” “Brooklyn Boy,”), Greif discovered that Margulies was writing about familiar territory.

“I recognized that he and I went to the same Hebrew school, in fact, because of the way in which he depicted certain characters,” Greif said. “I recognized the teachers and the rabbis he was writing about. It was a great discovery for me to get in touch with Donald and find out that we grew up in very close proximity to one another.”

Greif studied at Northwestern University and earned his graduate degree from UC San Diego. He had several New York and regional credits when he returned to San Diego to become the artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse from 1995 to 1999. After the enormous success of “Rent,” which he directed for Broadway and on its national tours, Greif left the Playhouse and returned to New York. He subsequently earned Tony Award nominations for “Grey Gardens” and for “Next to Normal,” the tale of a woman struggling with manic depression.

Although he alternates freely between directing musicals and straight plays, Greif’s upcoming dance card will involve a lot of singing. For New York’s Second Stage, Greif will stage “Dear Evan Hanson,” about a young man trying to fulfill his dreams. In June, he reunites with his “Grey Gardens” creative team on the world premiere of “War Paint,” a musical that details the rivalry between beauty entrepreneurs Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, and their respective imprints on the industry. Featuring Tony Award winners Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone, “War Paint” will premiere at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in June.

And though he won’t be part of either experience, “If/Then’s” Rapp knows that the “Dear Evan Hanson” and “War Paint” companies will be in the surest of hands. Like Menzel, Rapp was part of the original company of “Rent” and worked as Greif’s assistant on an early incarnation of “Next to Normal.” 

“He’s a real collaborator,” Rapp said of Greif. “Michael has always had a strong aesthetic and strong vision in bringing material to life. Every moment you’re in that room, there’s a possibility of doing really intentional, deep, rigorous work with the material. There’s not a moment wasted.

Did you see “The Lion King?”: A Thanksgiving story


I give thanks for “The Lion King.” This month, the theatrical production celebrates eighteen years on Broadway. I first fell in love with the show when I somehow scored tickets to the press preview the night before it opened in New York City, November 13, 1997. Like everyone else in the theatre, Susie and I were blown away by the phenomenal artistry of the piece – the spectacular costumes and puppetry portraying the animals of Pride Rock, the engaging music, and the story of family continuity. There have only been a handful of times in a Broadway show when I've completely lost it: the opening “Tradition” scene of “Fiddler on the Roof” sitting next to my Grandma Celia, the climactic fight scene when James Earl Jones as Jack Johnson prevails against “The Great White Hope,” and watching the enormous puzzle pieces of Mufasa's face come together as Simba sees his reflection as the “He Lives in You” scene unfolds.

Back in 1997, we couldn't wait to share the show with our children, Havi and Michael. They, of course, loved the original animated film, even though a beloved character dies. Once again, I cried tears of joy observing our kids sobbing in recognition when Simba realizes his place in “the circle of life.” 

Fast forward eighteen years. Havi is now herself a mother of a five year old, Ellie Brooklyn, and a two year old, Gabriel Elijah. “Mom, Dad,” Havi exclaimed on the phone as we planned our visit to celebrate Ellie's fifth birthday, “the national company of 'The Lion King' is in town…” I didn't wait for her to finish the sentence. “Don't say another word,” I said. “I'll get tickets. Gabe is too young for a three hour show, but I think Ellie will love it!” “I know, I know,” Havi cried, barely containing her anticipation.

And so it was on October 4, 2015, when Bubbie Susie and Zaydie Ronnie walked hand in hand with Ellie and Mommy Havi toward the San Jose Center for Performing Arts, while wonderful Daddy Dave took Gabe to the park. The plaza in front of the theatre was crowded with other grandparents, parents and children of all ages eagerly awaiting the show. Once inside, we bought a stuffed Baby Simba doll and a program before settling into our seats. As we waited for the curtain to rise, miraculously, Ellie lifted the Baby Simba doll high over her head and rocked it back and forth even though Havi had decided not to show the movie to Ellie, wanting her instead to experience the story as told in the theatre. From the moment Rafiki began her call to the incredible puppet animals to walk down the aisles and gather on stage, Ellie sat transfixed in awe. Havi, of course, was not watching the show; her entire gaze was on her daughter. And, of course, Havi was a basket case. 

I knew this because Susie and I were not watching the show either! We were watching our daughter watching her daughter experience the glory that is a live stage performance of “The Lion King.” Three generations sitting together in the dark of a theatre with souls illuminated by the power of music, art, and storytelling. It was magical…and, of course, I cried like a baby. 

When the climactic “He Lives in You” scene unfolded once again, I was overwhelmed with images of my parents. My mother Bernice died six years ago; my father, Alan, three years ago, God bless their souls. How they would have loved this moment! My mother was in a delirium for several days during the week before she died, but when she awoke and saw Susie and me standing next to her hospital bed, the first words out of her mouth were: “Is Havi pregnant?” It was a cry of hope for the future of her family.

This is the reason I wrote my new book, The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses (Jewish Lights Publishing). Excuse the pun, but Is there any greater dream than our “line” continues? Is there anything more powerful than family to shape our identities and destinies? This is the compelling message we transmit through storytelling. So, in addition to turkey and football, let’s spend some time at our Thanksgiving tables telling our stories and marveling at the wonder of generational continuity.

At Gabe’s brit milah, I was given the honor of being the sandak, the grandfather who holds the baby during the ritual circumcision. The moyel did his business in a few minutes, but Havi has the creative gene from Susie, so the bris was a wonderful celebration, with readings for each family member, explanations of the baby’s names, songs, poems, and reflections. But it took a good forty-five minutes. The baby did fine, sucking on a gauze pad soaked with wine. But, forty-five minutes?! Finally, the service was over, and everyone erupted in song, “Siman tov, u’mazal tov!” I don’t know what came over me, but as the singing came to an end, I stood up, held the baby high over my head, and yelled, “Hakuna metata!”

Did you see “The Lion King?”

Marlee Matlin reveling in unique ‘Spring Awakening’ revival


When the rock musical “Spring Awakening” premiered on Broadway, it was a critical darling and financial success. It won almost every major award possible, including eight Tonys, four Drama Desk Awards and even a Grammy.

So perhaps it’s not so surprising that it’s been revived on Broadway, even if it’s only been six years since it ended its successful run.

Certainly more startling, though, is that the current production of “Spring Awakening” features a cast of deaf actors signing their lines — and songs.

Even one of the show’s most high-profile stars, Marlee Matlin, concedes that people might consider the idea — deaf actors performing a musical — a bit strange.

“It’s almost ironic,” she said through her longtime interpreter, Jack Jason. She was on the phone with JTA en route from an interview in Brooklyn to her temporary Manhattan digs rented for the duration of the play, which runs through January.

“You’re talking about something that doesn’t happen every day,” she said. “People who haven’t seen the show have to wonder, how is this going to work?

The answer: very well.

Each deaf actor is accompanied by a hearing one, who sings or speaks what is being signed — in essence, two actors play each main role. While that may sound awkward, it takes audience members just a few minutes to become oriented, in part because the show, a production of the Deaf West Theater, is so creatively staged.

Set in Germany in the late 19th century, the “awakening” in “Spring Awakening” is a sexual one. A group of adolescents must deal with feelings they don’t understand and their repressed parents do not explain. The musical has a rousing score by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik that particularly comes to life when the young actors sing as an ensemble. When that happens, the deaf actors become like dancers; through their fast-paced use of American Sign Language, their hands combine the precision of the Rockettes with the artistry of ballerinas.

Although, like Matlin, a few of the deaf actors have some hearing, “It is not about hearing the music,” she says. In fact, several of the actors who have minimal hearing decided — whether for aesthetic reasons or just to make a statement — not to wear hearing aids during the performance.

“They’re just great actors who incorporate the rhythm into their acting,” says Matlin, who is making her Broadway debut. “It takes a great deal of rehearsal time working with the choreographer to make all this work. You [see] deaf actors on stage signing to music they can’t hear.”

The counterintuitive performance adds a moving and affecting layer to the show it didn’t have in its original production. Matlin says people stop her after every performance to comment on how awe-inspiring this version is.

Matlin, along with actress Camryn Manheim — who, like Matlin, is Jewish — play several adult female roles in the play. While Matlin herself doesn’t sing, she says the “most difficult part was learning my lines in conjunction with the music.”

It was a process with which she was vaguely familiar.

“I didn’t listen to music [when I appeared] on ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ she says. “I just used an internal metronome and went with it.” That was in 2008;  she was the sixth celebrity eliminated that season.

“Going with it” is something she’s been doing for a long time. Matlin, 50, was born in a Chicago suburb, the only deaf person in her family. She started to lose her hearing at 18 months.

“I have no idea why and probably never will,” she says.

Her family belonged to B’nai Shalom, the Jewish Temple for the Deaf, in nearby Skokie, which was run by a hearing rabbi whose goal was to bring the deaf and hearing Jewish communities together.

“It started out with deaf and and their hearing family members going to temple together, but it attracted a great number of hearing people” as well, she says.

For Matlin, it provided not only a link to other deaf people, but to her religion.

“It gave me a community to belong to. We’d go to temple Friday nights and I’d learn about my religion and learn about my faith,” she says. “I always looked forward to the community. I got bat mitzvahed there.”

Matlin signed the English parts of the service but learned her Torah portion phonetically and read it in Hebrew.

Matlin wasn’t the only one who did that, and she concedes some of what the deaf children read was unintelligible to members of the congregation.

“But it didn’t matter,” she says, “because they were reading from the Torah and that’s what it was all about.”

The experience at the temple encouraged her in other ways, she maintains.

“It gave me the drive, it gave me the foundation to believe in myself, despite what other people say,” Matlin says.

Her family was also a pillar of strength. At 7, when she said she wanted to be an actress, they enrolled her in a program at the Chicago-based International Center on Deafness and the Arts.

“They loved the idea that I could dream — that I could dream big and wanted to be an actor,” she says.

There Matlin immediately pursued and landed the role of Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” She continued to appear in the center’s productions for about nine years, until she was 16.

Another Jewish actor, Henry Winkler, also provided critical encouragement. He saw one of her performances and went backstage afterward.

“I told him I wanted to be in Hollywood. He said, ‘believe in yourself,'” she recalls. “He encouraged me over the years, and I took his advice to heart because it was coming from this very famous person. A lot of other people didn’t believe in me.”

In fact, they became so close that Matlin stayed with the Winklers for two years when she went out to Hollywood in her late teens. His mentorship helped her land the role of Sarah Norman in “Children of a Lesser God.”

Her nuanced performance as a custodian at a school for the deaf who becomes romantically involved with a hearing teacher (played by William Hurt) garnered her, at age 21, both an Academy Award and Golden Globe Award for best actress — along with a smattering of criticism. One prominent commentator claimed that she didn’t deserve the Oscar because she was deaf and wasn’t really acting. Another said she won it out of pity.

They were “dead wrong,” Matlin says. And she went on to prove it. She has starred in several TV series — including “Reasonable Doubts” and “The L Word” — and had recurring roles in “The West Wing,” “Blues Clues” and “Desperate Housewives,” among others. Matlin has also guest starred in everything from “Seinfeld” to “Law & Order: SVU,” the latter earning her a Primetime Emmy nomination.

While her professional life was relatively ripple-free, her personal life hit rough water early on. In her 2009 autobiography, “I’ll Scream Later,” she writes of her tumultuous off-screen romantic relationship with Hurt, which was was punctuated by episodes of domestic violence. She also went through a period of drug abuse and went to the Betty Ford clinic for treatment.

Fortunately, her personal life turned a corner. She married Los Angeles-area police officer Kevin Grandalski in 1993 in a ceremony that was held at Winkler’s home. Together they have four children aged 12 to 19.

As to her Broadway debut, Matlin is loving it.

“Everything that’s happening is so great; the many messages, the communications from fans,” she says. “It’s a wonderful experience.”

#myLAcommute My favorite flowers are daisies


HEIDI DODDS

I spend about five hours on the bus every day. I have a job so I can’t really complain. And I like my work. The only downside to my commute is that I have kids—it’s time taken away from them. But I’ve learned to enjoy the bus ride as my personal time.

On the weekends, I like to garden with my daughter. That’s the one thing we like to do. My favorite flowers are daisies.

Broadway to Randolph Street

#myLAcommute is a project of Zócalo Public Square.

Two literary giants, a lawsuit and Dick Cavett


It was the talk of the literary and legal worlds in the early 1980s. Noted playwright Lillian Hellman (“The Little Foxes,” “Another Part of the Forest” and numerous others), sued literary critic and author Mary McCarthy (her novel “The Group” had a long run on the New York Times best-seller list and was adapted for a film in 1966) over remarks McCarthy made during a PBS TV show hosted by Dick Cavett, widely considered at the time to be the most serious and erudite figure on the talk-show circuit. When Cavett asked McCarthy if she felt there were any overrated writers, she cited Pearl Buck, John Steinbeck and Hellman, saying of the latter, “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ ”

Thinking back to the immediate fallout from McCarthy’s incendiary remarks, Cavett said in a recent interview, “I can still hear the voice in my right ear on the telephone the next morning saying, ‘Why the hell didn’t you defend me?’ That was darling Lillian.

“She had a couple of defenders, but not very many back then, particularly over the fact that she always held herself as such a great advocate of free speech — no censorship — and the First Amendment.  And yet she sued another writer.”

The events surrounding the lawsuit are dramatized in Brian Richard Mori’s play “Hellman v. McCarthy,” which had its premiere off-Broadway last year, was broadcast on PBS and is now being staged in Beverly Hills by Theatre 40, with Cavett appearing as himself to re-create some of the seminal scenes and also to serve as narrator. He is joined by Marcia Rodd as McCarthy and Flora Plumb as Hellman.

McCarthy was not the only person to call Hellman’s veracity into question. Several writers and biographers said she lied in her memoirs, which included the books “An Unfinished Woman,” “Scoundrel Time” and “Pentimento,” one chapter of which was about a woman named Julia, supposedly Hellman’s lifelong friend, who was working underground in Europe against the Nazis. In the story, Hellman claimed she had smuggled money through Nazi Germany for Julia. That segment formed the basis for the film “Julia,” which stars Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave. Psychiatrist Muriel Gardiner charged that the Julia story was stolen from her own life and that she never knew Hellman, although they had the same lawyer.

“So much of Hellman’s writing was bogus,” Cavett maintained, “and she lied in her teeth about it, assuming they were her teeth, and pretended things that were not true throughout her life. She was, however, a very, very wonderful storyteller. I loved reading her book. I didn’t know that there was no Julia, and that she invented the thing out of whole or partial cloth.  And so, I liked her skills as a storyteller and as a playwright. I had dinner at her apartment a few times. She was very entertaining to be around, and witty.”

Hellman was born into a Jewish family in New Orleans but had little connection to her Jewish heritage. In her book “Lillian Hellman: A Life With Foxes and Scoundrels,” Deborah Martinson writes, “In New York [Lillian] found an atmosphere where Jewish culture resonated, although she was not a practicing Jew.  Judaic ribbons of connection lay slack on both sides of the family. Too Jewish in New Orleans … and not Jewish enough in New York … She fit, uneasily, the most ‘un-Jewish of Jews,’ a ‘breed apart’ from New York’s distinct and active Jewish communities. Hellman never understood what being a Jew actually meant exactly. But she always insisted vaguely, ‘I know I would rather be a Jew than not be.’ ”

Of McCarthy, Martinson writes, “Her grandmother was one-quarter Jewish, but [McCarthy was] raised Catholic.  It was years before she acknowledged her Jewish ties — something she later regretted.”

Playwright Mori said Hellman’s being Jewish didn’t really inform the character as he has drawn her. Mori remembered that he had moved from Southern California to New York right around the time the whole story broke and read every New York Times article on the controversy.

“It was absorbing,” Mori said. “I didn’t really consider doing anything with it dramatically until four or five years ago, and then I just read everything I could find about the women, their books and their interviews. I was able to get a lot of material from their archives, and I was able to review the court documents as well.

“I admired both women. I love writers, and they’re both extraordinary. And there’s the built-in conflict, even though one would think, as I mention in the play, that they would be allies rather than the reverse.”

But they were adversaries on many levels, especially with respect to politics. Although both leaned to the left, Hellman was a staunch Stalinist, to the point of refusing to repudiate Stalin’s purges, while McCarthy was a Trotskyite.

Cavett characterized the feeling between the two as “intense hatred, which did not contain itself.”

He continued: “Hellman was — and this is ironic — better-known, you might say. In the weakest, weakest part of her defense of herself, she claimed she wasn’t a public figure.” There is a higher burden of proof required in libel suits filed by public figures.  

“Shockingly, she won that argument,” Mori said. “Mary’s side, of course, thought it was going to be a slam dunk [against] that argument. And the judge sided with Lillian Hellman, saying that what Mary said isn’t protected opinions of free speech, which was very strange.”

Mori’s play doesn’t take either woman’s side, and he was unwilling to give his personal opinion as to which of the two was the more sympathetic.

The lawsuit, which dragged on for four years, evaporated with Hellman’s death in 1984. McCarthy died five years later.

“Hellman v. McCarthy” runs from Feb. 6 to Feb. 28 at Theatre 40.

 For tickets to “Hellman v. McCarthy” call (310)-364-0535 or visit theatre40.laughstub.com.

From Broadway to cantor, Mike Stein competes on NBC’s ‘The Voice’


Chazzan Mike Stein never really considered himself a singer, but rather, he said, an instrumentalist who sings. But when an agent called and invited him to audition for the upcoming seventh season of NBC’s TV hit singing competition “The Voice,” something within him that had lain dormant since his teen years on the Broadway stage was ignited once again. 

“I don’t think that I would have done it if somebody hadn’t approached me. Up until the day of the audition, I thought, ‘Why am I doing this?’ My wife and sons are the ones who said, ‘Dad, you should do this for yourself.’ ”

And they were right, Stein, 62, admits now: “There is a deep sense of satisfaction in this business that you can’t get anywhere else. It’s a totally different kind of satisfaction than what I get being a cantor — it’s total ego, and I really enjoyed every minute.”  

Bound by contractual silence, in a recent interview Stein, a Grammy winner and, since 2000, chazzan at the Conservative Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, had to tip-toe around sharing any stories of his TV experience. He is the first cantor to appear on the show — there have been a few music ministers, and a nun once won the “Voice” competition in Italy. Stein entered into the process openly displaying his affiliation, he said. “I was representing the Jewish people. I insisted that I could wear a yarmulke, and I talked about being Jewish a lot, in almost every interview.” At his first audition, Stein sang Romemu from the Friday night service, and he added a yodel to it. “I just want to be the Matisyahu [Jewish rapper] of country music,” Stein said with a laugh.

Stein has been singing since he was a young boy growing up in New York. One of his favorite things was going to the synagogue and listening to his cantor sing in the classical chazzanut style. In third grade, Stein started to play the violin and later picked up the guitar when the Beatles came to America. Even though his mother was a pianist and his great-uncle was the famous Broadway-musicals composer Jule Styne (“Funny Girl,” “Gypsy”), his parents weren’t supportive of his passion. “My parents didn’t want me to be a singer or actor, anything in the entertainment business — for them, that was a failure. The older actors on Broadway that I met became my surrogate parents; they adopted me. … Later, I learned from this, and that’s why my children have 300 percent of my support in the arts,” said Stein. 

At 16, he entered Queens College, majoring in drama. He soon left to pursue a career in acting. It was really tough; he recalled living in a condemned building on the Lower East Side, selling everything in order to eat and sweeping floors in hopes of landing some kind of opportunity. Stein’s first break on Broadway came as part of the chorus in the rock opera “Soon.” Then, at 19, he landed a spot in the original cast of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and toured in the original road show of the rock opera “Tommy.” Then his journey took a detour. 

“I felt that all the things I was doing on Broadway were amazing, but they didn’t have the substance for me. I left my career and went to live on a farm in Pennsylvania with my girlfriend, and we lived like hippies and grew our own food,” he said.

Eventually, Stein moved back to civilization and landed in Washington, D.C., doing street theater, entertaining people as they waited in lines for museums. It was there that he met his wife, Shelley (a trained opera singer); they married and started a family. (They now have three very musically talented, now-adult sons — Jacob, Justin and Jared — and a family band called the “Rolling Steins.”)

While in D.C., Stein also auditioned for the United States Navy Band, which needed a fiddle player at the time. Stein played with that band for 17 years, including numerous concerts at the White House, performing for four presidents, as well as around the world. 

In the mid 1980s, Stein attended a Jewish music festival, where he met Cantor Arnold Saltzman, which turned out to be a pivotal moment in his life. He went on to study with Saltzman, and soon after answered an ad for a synagogue looking for a cantor on Friday nights — Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md. That’s where his career as a cantor got its start, and he moved from there to Temple Aliyah in 2000. 

“Being a cantor is an amazing privilege,” Stein said. “I try to help people find another entrance into the synagogue through music. It helps them look at Judaism as something that they can participate in. … I enjoy being invited into people’s lives, in all stages of life, and being entrusted with their emotions.” 

With the High Holy Days just around the corner, Stein noted, “It’s a great time. When I start on the first night, that first phrase that I sing in front of the ark emotionally opens me up in a place of awe and thankfulness. I work hard [at] not letting it feel like pressure, like work; and it is work. We do avodah — avodah is worship, and it’s the same word for work. Yom Kippur feels like a marathon, because I am very weak by the end; it’s hard.”

A few days before the holidays begin, Stein will be getting another call from “The Voice,” this one to let him know when his performances will be airing during the premiere week of Sept. 22. 

Being on “The Voice,” he said, “gave me a lot of confidence and made me realize that I am worth a lot more than I think I am. It made me feel that I have so much to give, and people are ready to listen and accept what I have to give. … It gave me a big lift.” 

Good luck, Chazzan Stein. We’ll be watching. 

Will Larry David’s Broadway show add to his Jewish file?


In Larry David’s fake real-life world on the HBO sitcom “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” he is tapped by Mel Brooks to take over the Zero Mostel-Nathan Lane role of Max Bialystock in the megahit Broadway adaptation of “The Producers.”

Just as Max and accountant Leo Bloom set out to make money by producing a surefire bomb, Brooks picks Larry with the (secret) goal of killing the Tony Award-winning musical and getting his life back. But in an art-imitates-art twist, Larry (like “Springtime for Hitler”) miraculously becomes a hit.

Now comes news that the real real-life Larry David is set to make his Broadway debut in 2015 with a play titled “Fish in the Dark.” David wrote the script and will star in the show.

David isn’t saying much about the details except that it is a comedy about a death in the family. Before the official announcement, the buzz was that the show would be called “Shiva.”

So odds are good that David will be adding to his already sizable Jewish canon.

OK, he’s not Philip Roth. But who is? Few in showbiz have tackled as many Jewish topics with as much attitude and as prominently as David has on “Curb” and as the co-creator/lead writer of “Seinfeld.”

Among the highlights:

Survivors and making out during ‘Schindler’s List‘

It was fitting that in 2004, David dedicated the entire fourth season of “Curb” to the Larry-gets-cast-in-”The Producers” plot line. Few have followed as boldly in Brooks’ footsteps as David when it comes to turning the Holocaust into a punch line. In fact, you could argue that David has attempted a far more daring (some would say offensive) maneuver — whereas Brooks deployed comedy as a weapon against Hitler, David has taken aim at the hallowed status of survivors and Holocaust memorialization.

First came the “Seinfeld” episode (“The Raincoats”) when Jerry is caught making out with his girlfriend during a screening of “Schindler’s List.” As it turns out, the roots of the gag were actually the doldrums of synagogue.

“I think it must have come from sitting in temple,” David said several years ago in an interview packaged with the release of the series on DVD. “I would sit in temple wondering what would happen if I reached over and touched my wife’s breast now or something like that. I can’t pay attention; my mind wanders.”

Count Jerry Stiller, fictional father of George Costanza on “Seinfeld,” among those who was a little squeamish about the bit.

“I just felt that they had gone over the line with that one,” Stiller, who is Jewish, once commented about the episode. But he quickly added with a laugh, “Then I said, ‘Well, Jews go over the line.’ ”

David would cross the line again — this time in an episode of “Curb” featuring a showdown between a Holocaust survivor and a contestant on the reality show “Survivor” over which one had it rougher.

Israel activism and tribal loyalty

In 2011, between the last two large-scale Israel-Hamas conflicts, David gave us a “Curb” episode titled “Palestinian Chicken.” A lesser artist would have settled for interethnic feuding between supporters of the Jewish deli and the new Palestinian chicken place, but David also delivered a biting take on the often tedious sniping between Jewish universalists (Larry, who has a yen for the chicken and lusts after the Palestinian owner of the restaurant) and tribalists (a yarmulke-clad Marty Funkhauser disgusted by Larry’s betrayal).

Bonus factoid: Funkhauser is played by Bob Einstein, whose brother is Albert Brooks (yes, that’s right, real name: Albert Einstein).

Mohels and rabbis

Jewish clergy haven’t fared too well in David’s creative hands (then again, few people do). The rabbis on “Seinfeld” and “Curb” are always flawed, either incapable of keeping a secret or self-absorbed. And then there’s the shaky-handed mohel from “The Bris” episode of “Seinfeld.”

The seder

On “The Seder” episode of “Curb,” Larry takes “Let all who are hungry come and eat” to a new level — inviting a registered sex offender at the last second.

Jewish self-hatred

“Curb” ended its fifth season with a multi-episode arc featuring Larry being told he was adopted and tracking down his supposed birth family — a collection of decidedly un-neurotic and extremely kind religious Christians. In short, the exact opposite of Larry. The result is a new, gentile, gentler Larry. Until he discovers it was all a mistake, at which point he returns to his old self (following a brief trip to heaven). Implication: The Jews and the Jewish are responsible for all of Larry’s loathsome characteristics.

It’s hard to think of a more decidedly anti-Jewish message on television.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that — as long as it’s funny.

Theodore Bikel’s 90th birthday celebration


How do you celebrate the 90th birthday of a man who has had a major impact on American film, television, theater, music and social activism?

By putting on a concert and inviting legends of folk music to perform, of course.

Theodore Bikel has turned 90, and as actor and the night’s master of ceremonies Ed Asner quipped, “Theo has done more in this past decade than most people do in a lifetime.”

Hundreds of fans poured into the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills on June 16 to pay tribute to the great performer.

The night began with a screening of clips from some of Bikel’s most memorable film and television roles: an officer in “The African Queen”; the Russian submarine captain in “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming”; Zoltan Karpathy, the dialect expert, in “My Fair Lady”; and a hilarious scene from “All in the Family,” in which he plays a German butcher infatuated with Edith Bunker.

Of his many roles, Bikel said in an interview, he has many positive memories — and some less-than-positive ones, including one scene from 1958’s “The Defiant Ones,” in which he played a Southern sheriff in pursuit of two escaped prisoners, a role that earned him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor.

“We were traipsing around in a swamp, up to our knees in mud and slime, waiting for two Dobermans to sniff right. I thought, ‘What am I doing here? I’m a classically trained actor.’ It took two days and some of the night. But by and large, it was a wonderful experience of filmmaking and creation.”

But the Saban Theatre show focused largely on his musical contributions. Bikel co-founded the Newport Folk Festival and recorded more than 20 albums, including one called “Theodore Bikel Sings More Jewish Folk Songs.” As he took to the stage, Bikel launched into one of those songs, but first joked, “A friend of mine said it was a misnomer. It should’ve been called ‘Theodore Bikel Sings More Jewish Folk Songs Than Anybody.’”

For many Jews, beginning in the 1950s and ’60s and through to today, the Vienna-born Bikel has been the definitive voice of Jewish song and of the rebirth of Yiddish culture. Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino remembers his parents playing Bikel’s Yiddish albums at night. “For my socialist Zionist parents, this was a bedtime prayer,” Feinstein said.

The folk duo Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer strummed their banjos, covering a Woody Guthrie song as well as a Yiddish song about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which killed 146 garment workers — a nod to Bikel’s long history of labor activism.

During a break in the music, speakers from The Actors Fund, Actors’ Equity and SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) praised Bikel’s leadership over the years in bringing fair pay to actors and performers. 

Musician Mike Stein remembered Bikel’s efforts to push the National Theater in Washington, D.C., to become racially integrated. 

“If there’s something we love about Theo, it’s that no amount of fame and achievement ever changes his fundamental mensch-ness. He remains one of us, devoted to making the world better for all of us,” Asner said.

A parade of fellow folk luminaries also took turns on stage: The venerable Tom Paxton led the audience in a sing-along of “How Beautiful Upon the Mountain,” taken from Isaiah 52:7, and Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary delighted fans with “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “Light One Candle.” Arlo Guthrie brought Bikel and the rest of the musicians on stage for a rousing rendition of “This Land Is Your Land.”

“Everybody up here, many of you, we sing for a living, we act, we do things that are important,” Guthrie said. “The most important thing for me is what it’s like to have an act of kindness done to you by somebody who’s well-known. It doesn’t happen all that often. Theo was one of those people you could count on. He is a kind man, and to me that is more important than all the other stuff.”

Composer and arranger Artie Butler took a seat at the piano to perform a couple of romantic songs, gently singing, “Here’s to life, here’s to love, and here’s to you.” Craig Taubman, well-known to synagogue audiences in Los Angeles, sang “Take your shoes off, you’re on holy ground.”

But the greatest crowd response was to Bikel himself, who received a number of standing ovations. He wore all black, including suspenders and a peasant cap reminiscent of the clothing worn by Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” a role he played more than 2,000 times on stage from 1967 to 2010, more than any other actor.

Despite his age, Bikel belted out song after song, pumping his fist in the air to punctuate the lyrics. The night neared a close with Bikel and the Greek-born tenor Alberto Mizrahi dramatically swapping lines in a Hebrew song about the rebuilding of the Holy Temple. And then, Bikel picked up an acoustic guitar and softly sang the Phil Ochs song “When I’m Gone,” a nod to his own mortality: 

“There’s no place in this world where I’ll belong when I’m gone 

And I won’t know the right from the wrong when I’m gone 

And you won’t find me singin’ on this song when I’m gone 

So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.”

Even after Bikel is gone, his music will reach new ears. At one point in the evening, Rhino Records executive Mark Pinkus announced that the label would be releasing 12 classic Bikel albums on iTunes. “Theodore’s music was loved throughout the 20th century. We’re going to make sure people love it throughout the 21st century,” Pinkus said.

In the meantime, Bikel has no plans to slow down. He’s just released a new edition of his autobiography, “Theo,” with a chapter in which he reflects on turning 90. “It’s a fairly voluminous chapter. There’s a lot to reflect on,” he said. “A friend asked me, ‘Now that you’re 90, what do you have to look forward to?’ I said, ‘91.’ ”

He’s also taken to translating Yiddish literature, in an effort to connect a younger generation to the ideas of great writers that inspired him. And a documentary he produced and stars in, “Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem,” based on his long-running one-man show, will premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in July.

“I’m not the retired type,” he joked. But, there may be a moment of relaxation awaiting him. He said he and his wife, journalist Aimee Ginsburg, are heading to Europe for a river cruise next month. “That’ll be fun and restful. I can sit on a boat and contemplate the world as it passes me by.” 

His gentle, Jewish humor is again Crystal clear in ‘700 Sundays’


After two sellout runs on Broadway — nine years apart — as well as a book and a successful world tour, actor and comic Billy Crystal brings his one-man, autobiographical play, “700 Sundays,” to television via HBO on April 19. The show was taped before an audience earlier this year, near the end of its latest Broadway production.

Crystal wrote the script, incorporating additional material by Alan Zweibel, and he plays the various characters that have influenced his life, from his childhood in Long Beach, N.Y., through his adult years.  

He said he was impelled to stage the play in 2004 as a cathartic endeavor after suffering several painful losses.

“I had lost my mother a couple of years before and two other very close relatives, who are characters in the show: my uncle Milt, whom I talk about in the show — Milt died in July, my mom in November … in the middle of [the aftermath of 9/11] — and my godmother, with whom I was very close, a week after my mother died. And my best friend at the time, a man named Dick Schaap, who was a sports journalist, died in December. So, all I was doing, as I say in the opening, in the empty house, was giving eulogies and conducting memorial services.”  

The actor explained that the play’s title, “700 Sundays,” refers to the number of Sundays he was able to spend with his dad, who died suddenly when Crystal was still a teenager.  

“I was 15, and a wounded kid in love that didn’t work out, and we got into it a little bit,” Crystal recalled. “He was in a failing business, not a happy time in his life, under huge stress, and so we had words, and then, unfortunately we were never able to say, ‘Sorry.’ And that was always a big pain in my life, so coming to grips with that in the drama of the show is, I think, a wonderful thing for me and for the audience.”

Toward the end of the show, Crystal eases the heartache in a dream. “You work the whole show, and the whole story, to be able to be together at the end, in this dream, in heaven, and everything’s OK. Basically, we sort of say we’re sorry just by the way we look at each other and say, ‘Come on, let’s go have dinner together,’ which is how the show ends — ‘Did you eat?’ which is a very Jewish, in the best way, thing to say.”  

In fact, the script is replete with Jewish references. Regarding his own upbringing, Crystal described his family as observant, but not strict.

“We were Reform. I was bar mitvahed and married within the Reform temple. … My grandfather was … I guess Conservative is what you would say — very observant. He would daven. He would do all of those rituals. The seders were always the entire haggadah. We didn’t eat until 10:30. ‘Why is this night different?’ It’s not different. We still haven’t eaten yet, and the Jews haven’t left Egypt.”

As might be expected from Crystal, the underlying poignancy of the piece is leavened throughout with great humor. “There are huge laughs,” he said, “even within the sections of my dad’s funeral, and it’s not easy to navigate. But it was necessary to keep the audience with me so it doesn’t get maudlin, and I think it’s very important, in the show, to be able to do that.”  

And so there are uproarious bits, such as the section in which Crystal re-enacts his awakening youthful sex drive, symbolized by a talking penis that intrudes on his every activity and demands to be satisfied. There are also hilarious one-liners. For example, Crystal defines Yiddish as a mixture of “German and phlegm.”  

Crystal characterized the play as a form of homage to his parents. His mother is presented as a fun-loving woman who, after his father died and they were facing hard times, learned to be a secretary and managed to put away money so that Crystal could go to college. His father, Jack, was a jazz buff who ran a record store in Manhattan and emceed jazz concerts. As a result, Crystal got to know some of the greats of the jazz world. It was through his father and his uncle, Milton Gabler, a noted record producer, that Crystal met Billie Holiday, who took him to his first film, “Shane.”  

There were other “firsts” provided by his father and revisited in the show: the family’s first car; Crystal’s first baseball game, at which he saw Mickey Mantle hit a home run; his first exposure to a live comedian in the Catskills; and his first appearance on a stage.

“It makes you think about your own family,” Crystal said. “It makes you think about your own relatives. It makes you think about what’s important in your life. At the end of it, I usually say to an audience, ‘Go home and call somebody you love, and tell them that you love them.’ ” 

Crystal added that he is very proud of the way director Des McAnuff taped the performance, forging it into an intimate audience experience. The actor felt it was time to stop performing it onstage.

“I’d like everybody to see it. How many times can I do it? You do it for 1,500 people a night, and that’s a lot for Broadway. How many times would I have to do it to reach the millions that we’ll reach with the broadcast? So, I think it’s very strong, and that people will get a chance to see it and can see it again. But also, it’s a permanent, beautiful record for my kids and my grandkids of who I was and who came before them.”

Billy Crystal’s “700 Sundays” debuts April 19 at 9 p.m. on HBO. Check listings for additional showtimes.

You can’t take it with you?


After a successful eight-and-a-half month run off-Broadway in 2009, “Don’t Leave It All to Your Children,” a musical-comedy revue aimed at encouraging the older generation to live life to the fullest, has recently opened at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks. The mix of monologues, songs and blackout sketches features four show-business veterans with impressive Broadway and television credits, including Marcia Rodd (“Last of the Red Hot Lovers”), Barbara Minkus (“The Education of Hyman Kaplan”), Ronnie Schell (“Gomer Pyle”) and John Shull (“Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” etc.).

The show was created by the venerable television writer-producer Saul Ilson, one half of Ilson/Chambers, the production team responsible for “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and innumerable TV specials headlined by such stars as Danny Kaye, Frank Sinatra and Doris Day, among a host of others.

Ilson, who wrote, produced and directed “Don’t Leave It All to Your Children,” recalled getting the idea for a senior-oriented revue when he was in Branson, Mo., writing a show for country singer Mel Tillis.

“There were a lot of theaters there — Andy Williams was there, and the Lawrence Welk family was there. I noticed that there are hundreds and thousands of seniors, vibrant, spending money, coming to town. The theaters were holding 2,000 seats, and they were selling out. And I realized that this is the audience that television didn’t want anymore.

“So, I said, ‘I’m going to tap into this audience.’ ” 

Ilson pointed out that the show has had many incarnations since he wrote it in 1996. It was first titled “Senior Class” and played at the Annenberg Theater in Palm Springs for four winter seasons. Ilson kept rewriting and building the script and ultimately changed the title to “Don’t Leave It All to Your Children,” by which he means that, since people are living longer and staying healthier, they should spend some of what they have on themselves. 

“I’m saying, ‘Enjoy your life. Get out there. You’re vibrant. Take advantage of it,’ ” Ilson explained.

“The secondary theme,” he added, “was to tell the baby boomers what they have to look forward to as they come into the senior ranks. And as far as younger people are concerned, I’m telling them to come and pay attention. You know these people. They’re your uncles, your aunts, your cousins. You know all of them, and if you pay attention, and if you’re lucky, one day you’ll get to be one of us.”
But, Ilson stressed, “We want to make it clear, we’re not telling you kids that you’re not getting anything. We’re not telling your parents not to leave you anything. We don’t want you picketing the theater.”

As a matter of fact, Ilson discovered during the New York run that the show appeals to younger audiences, as well as to seniors. 

And Minkus, who was in the New York production, said she was amazed to see so many people bringing their children and grandchildren, who loved the show. She feels the revue deals with issues beyond the theme of older people enjoying life.

“It’s a show about family, multi generations of families, and how memories can be a positive aspect to our lives, how dealing with life’s problems can also be handled in a positive (way). I was very taken by all the different topics regarding retirement, getting older, being married for a long time. It’s just a charming, fun show, and Saul’s lyrics are terrific.” 

Ilson, who is Jewish and was raised in an Orthodox home, says the revue has a decidedly Jewish bent.

“There’s no doubt that there’s a cloud of Jewishness over this whole show,” he said. “It has a Jewish flavor to it; you’ll see. That’s what we found out in New York. A lot of stuff I learned from my grandmother. There’s a song called ‘Looking Back,’ when one of the characters discovers her granddaughter is getting married. It’s got that feeling in it.  It’s definitely a show that will appeal to Jewish people.”

He added that his work has been greatly influenced by his early exposure to Yiddish theater.

“I saw every great performer you can think of. I was living in Montreal. It was called the Circuit — they played the Circuit — Maurice Schwartz, Menasha Skulnik, the Adlers, Molly Picon.  I saw them all.  I knew then that that’s what I wanted to do because I used to make up shows. That was a great, great influence on me,” he said. 

“I saw people smiling. I saw people having a good time.” 

Minkus, who is very active in AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), also remembered her introduction to Jewish comedy. “When I was starting out in New York, all the comedians would drive me up to the Catskills.  How old was I — 18, 17.  And, my God! What an education I got from them!  

“There’s just something so — there’s so much pathos in Jewish humor.”

She continued, “But, for me, I think these characters are universal.  I think I’m the only Jewish person in the show.  But it really doesn’t matter.  The issues are universal.”

Minkus hopes audiences will leave the theater feeling good about themselves and about life. “I don’t know what’s in the next life, but I just know that it’s today, and it’s not a dress rehearsal,” she said.  “It’s today.  And that is what I think people get from this show, a real kick in the pants to enjoy life.”


“Don’t Leave It All to Your Children,” Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Performances are Sundays at 2 p.m., Jan. 26 through March 30. (Dark Feb. 9 and 16). Call (800) 838-3006. For groups of 10 or more, call (818) 986-2908.

Calendar Dec 14-20


SAT | DEC 14

“RE-EMERGING: THE JEWS OF NIGERIA”

Shmuel Tikvah, a young Nigerian, heard time and time again about the Igbo people, who claim descent from ancient Israelites. Research at an Internet cafe leads him on a quest to find this Nigerian Jewish community, which keeps kosher, lights Shabbat candles and prays in Hebrew. Director Jeff L. Lieberman documents the journey of ancestry, identity and the reshaping of life with a new kind of faith. Sat. Various times. Through Dec. 19. $11 (general), $8 (seniors, ages 11 and under, bargain matinee). Laemmle Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. (310) 478-3836. ” target=”_blank”>km-synagogue.org.


SUN | DEC 15

COMMUNITY SERVICE DAY

Embrace the spirit of giving with the The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Join Food Forward to pick fresh oranges off of trees to donate to Jewish Family Service, assemble care packages with Project M.O.T. for Jewish servicewomen and servicemen in the U.S. Armed Forces, throw an awesome “Senior Prom” for some of the older citizens in our community or prepare dinner for the homeless with Union Rescue Mission. Sun. Free. Times, locations vary. (323) 761-8000. ” target=”_blank”>theautry.org.

“BROADWAY SING-ALONG: A SPARKLING REFLECTION OF OUR AMERICAN LIFE”

This one’s for all you secret shower singers. American Jewish University invites you to belt your biggest notes during a celebration of Broadway’s best. Producer Ellie Mednick explores facets of American life while Karen Thomson Hall leads us in some of our favorites from Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Kander and Ebb, and the Gershwins. It’s a curtain-call opportunity for the whole family. Sun. 4 p.m. $25. American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 476-9777. ” target=”_blank”>acsz.org/comedy.


TUE | DEC 17

LAEMMLE’S 75th ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION

Your favorite theater chain is having a birthday! Laemmle Theatre’s Charitable Foundation hosts a special evening to commemorate its role in both civic and cultural life as well as the nonprofit work it supports. There will be drinks, hors d’oeuvres, a community presentation and a screening of a Laemmle classic. Your ticket also gets you a copy of the book “Not Afraid … 75 years of Film Exhibition in Los Angeles.” Tue. 6 p.m. $100. Laemmle’s Royal Theatre, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 478-0401. ” target=”_blank”>vbs.org.


THUR | DEC 19

SHELLEY BERMAN

The comedian, actor and writer has a new book of poetry out! “To Laughter With Questions” is a collection of serious and not-so-serious verse, limericks, rhymes and an attempt at iambic pentameter. While you might know him best from his many film and TV appearances, here is an opportunity to get to know the man more intimately. His collection is full of personal experiences, and because he has taught in USC’s Master of Professional Writing program, you know it’s well written. Thu. 7 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110.

Calendar: Nov. 22-29, 2012


[Pick of the WeekWed., Nov. 28]

“Other Desert Cities”

Pulitzer Prize finalist Jon Robin Baitz’s first Broadway play unfolds in Palm Springs on Erev Christmas. High drama, serious laughter and repartee ensue as Brooke presents her Reagan-adjacent parents with a tell-all confessional novel that turbo-charges the holidays and the Wyeth family dynamic with ever-shifting alliances and politics. The ensemble cast includes Jeannie Berlin, Robert Foxworth, Robin Weigert, Michael Weston and JoBeth Williams. Through Jan. 6. $40-$55. Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown. (213) 628-2772. centertheatregroup.org.



[SAT | NOV 24]

“To Rome With Love”/“Midnight In Paris”

Set in Europe, writer-director Woody Allen’s two most recent films, like much of his work, explore just how complicated love can be. “To Rome With Love” follows the lives of some visitors and residents of Rome (Penelope Cruz, Alec Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg and Allen himself costar) and the romances, adventures and predicaments they get into. The Oscar-winning “Midnight in Paris” follows a nostalgic screenwriter (Owen Wilson) who finds himself mysteriously going back to the 1920s every day at midnight. Sat. “To Rome With Love”: 3:15 and 7:30 p.m.; “Midnight in Paris”: 5:30 and 9:45 p.m. $8 (general), $6 (seniors older than 62, children younger than 12). New Beverly Cinema, 7165 W. Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 938-4038. newbevcinema.com.


[MON | NOV 26]

“Women and Prayer at the Wall”

After leading a prayer service and singing the Shema at the Western Wall, where women are barred from praying as a group, Women of the Wall’s Anat Hoffman was arrested for allegedly disturbing the peace. The incident is cause for today’s public forum, a discussion on religious pluralism in Israel. Jewish Journal Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman moderates a panel discussion with Rabbi Laura Geller (Temple Emanuel), Rabbi Nicole Guzik (Sinai Temple), Rabbi Judith HaLevy (Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue) and Rav Yosef Kanefsky (B’nai David-Judea). Consul General of Israel David Siegel, Jewish Federation President Jay Sanderson and LimmudLA co-founder Shep Rosenman also participate. Mon. 7-9 p.m. Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, Corwin Family Sanctuary, 300 N. Clark Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 288-3737. tebh.org.


[TUE | NOV 27]

“The Color of Marriage: Jews, Race and Intermarriage In America”

Jennifer Glaser, an assistant professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Cincinnati, appears at UCLA to discuss the conjoined histories of gender and race in Jewish America. She draws on contemporary texts, including “How I Became Hettie Jones,” Hettie Jones’ memoir of her marriage to the poet LeRoi Jones; Lore Segal’s “Her First American”; and Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story” to make her argument. Tue. Noon. Free. UCLA campus, 314 Royce Hall, Los Angeles. (310) 267-5327. cjs.ucla.edu.

“Dissolution”

Director Nina Menkes’ black-and-white film follows the moral collapse of a morose Israeli Jew responsible for the murder of a female pawnbroker. Menkes appears in person for a post-screening Q-and-A. USC School of Cinematic Arts professor David James moderates. Tue. 7-10 p.m. Free. University of Southern California, University Park Campus-Ray Stark Family Theatre, SCA 108, Los Angeles. (213) 740-8358. cinema.usc.edu/events.

“Jewtopia” 

The hit comedic play about interfaith dating inspired this star-studded independent film adaptation, following two childhood friends who reunite years later. Chris, a non-Jew, feels comfortable dating decision-making Jewish women while Adam escapes his Jewish roots by pursuing shiksas. The two school each other on how to score with their women of choice. Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jon Lovitz, Rita Wilson, Tom Arnold, Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Phil Rosenthal costar. YALA’s Entertainment Council hosts this special screening, including a Q-and-A with director Bryan Fogel and producer Courtney Mizel. Tue. 7:45-10:15 p.m. $18. William Morris Endeavor Screening Room, 9601 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (323) 761-8324. jewishla.org.


[THU | NOV 29]

“The Vote”

Re-enacting the 1947 U.N. vote that led to the creation of the State of Israel, this musical journey travels back to that pivotal moment in history. Tonight’s program includes reel clips from 1947 and earlier, songs, live performances, appearances by Rabbis David Wolpe and Ed Feinstein as well as a Keshet Chaim dance medley. Youth 13 and older are encouraged to attend. Thu. 7:30 p.m. Free. American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (818) 466-6454. thevote.eventbrite.com.

“Blues and the Pursuit of Freedom”

Celebrating the role of music in American history, the Marcus Shelby Quintet performs original compositions about Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other pivotal protest movements and figures in American history and showcases rearranged standards, blues, pop songs, rhythm and blues, poetry and narration. Thu. 8 p.m. $20 (general), $15 (Skirball members), $10 (students). Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. skirball.org.

‘Modigliani’ paints moving portrait of tormented artist


An artist’s angst over personal demons and the vicissitudes of the marketplace is depicted with a mixture of humor and pathos in the upcoming revival of “Modigliani” at the Open Fist Theatre in Hollywood. The story, set in the Montparnasse area of Paris in 1916, covers three days in the life of the celebrated Italian-Jewish painter Amedeo Modigliani, who, like numerous other artists, became an icon only after his death. He is particularly noted for his renderings of elongated figures, mask-like faces and erotic nudes.

The play, by the late Dennis McIntyre, was produced off-Broadway at the Astor Place Theatre in 1980, where director Bjørn Johnson saw it when he went to New York as a young actor to study. He was so taken with the material that, years later, he decided to play Modigliani as a project for his acting class in Los Angeles. Now he is helming a professional production of the work for a midweek offering at the Open Fist.

“ ‘Modigliani’ is really the genuine starving-artist story,” Johnson remarked. “He was a guy who was recognized by everybody but just couldn’t get it off the ground.”

He was also recognized for his alcoholism, his addiction to hashish and absinthe, and his womanizing. 

“He was a wild guy,” Johnson said, “very eccentric and so open. And that’s what’s so attractive about the play, what’s so attractive about the characters. What else is attractive to me about the material is that it’s a great acting opportunity. The scenes are detailed, and they’re deep, and they get to completion. They go to very deep places, not all of them dark. But it’s just kind of a great, human opportunity for an actor, and a director.”

Johnson and Matt Marquez — who plays the title role — both say that they, as artists in another medium, can relate to Modigliani’s struggles.  Marquez describes the three days depicted in the play as a particularly crucial point in Modigliani’s life. The artist is burned-out; tired of buyers, collectors and dealers; has not been painting; and wants money to fulfill his fantasy of running away to Martinique.

“He’s somebody who has begun to doubt his own talent,” Marquez explained, “and he has reason for that. He’s basically come to a crisis in his life where he doesn’t know what to do or if he’s made the right choice. So, he’s filled with doubt, like many of us are at times in our lives.”

Marquez added: “What makes it even harder to deal with is the fact that he has tuberculosis and he’s dying. In those three days, he’s struggling to find something of substance in his life and a way back into what he loved so much in his art. He’s uninspired, and he’s trying to find inspiration, and he knows his time is finite. He doesn’t know if he’ll make it to the next day.”

The art world of Modigliani’s day in Paris was teeming with such movements as Cubism, Post-Impressionism, Dadaism and Futurism, among others, but Modigliani didn’t fit the mold. Marquez feels it’s a problem for artists that never changes.

“It has to do with culture and what’s popular and what’s not. They say artists are ahead of their time, but it’s more about everyone else having to catch up. They’re right where they need to be, but everyone else has to catch up,” Marquez said.

“There’s a line where one of the dealers tells my character that there’s no demand for a certain kind of painting that I’m doing, and I say, ‘Demand? But demand can’t change something that’s beautiful.’ And, of course, he rejects what I’ve just said,” Marquez added.

The tragic underpinning of the play is leavened with hilarity, particularly in the characters of Modigliani’s fellow artists Chaim Soutine (Nasser Khan), also Jewish, and Maurice Utrillo (Daniel Escobar).

Utrillo wants Soutine to help him kill his mother’s lover, while Soutine wants assistance in stealing a dead cow so that he can watch the side of beef change and paint the colors that emerge. He worries that they won’t get to the carcass in time. “What if they throw out the beef? Butchers aren’t very sensitive. They don’t understand reds or greens.”

Modigliani, or Modi, as he was called, also has his comedic moments. At one point he explains his injured hand to his agent, Leopold (Jeff Lorch and Peter Lewis,  double-cast), by recounting his escapade in an upscale restaurant that he had entered from the back.  When the staff realized he had drunk two bottles of wine, and probably couldn’t pay, they started chasing him. He describes leaping over tables, stepping in dinners, introducing himself and sampling desserts when he found himself at the table of a French general and his wife.

“And you know what I think about French generals,” he says. He then describes how he dropped his pants and bent over, adding, “And Jews don’t drop their pants on very important generals.”

The fact that Modigliani was Jewish definitely informs the work and is a significant element of the story, according to Johnson.

“I don’t think it’s an isolated thing. I think it ties into his sense of being held outside, of being excluded, of being repressed. And I think it couples with his frustrations. Utrillo is his best friend, and yet he sort of laughingly calls him a Jew bastard and sarcastically calls him a kike. But it definitely ties into the gestalt of the society in which they’re living.” 

Modigliani’s sense of being alienated explodes in the play’s devastating, pivotal scene, which finds him meeting with art dealer Guillaume Chéron (Jon Collin Barclay), who trivializes the artist’s efforts, is disrespectful, dismissive and somewhat contemptuous, offering an insultingly paltry sum for some of the artwork. The dealer says, “You have a talent — but I doubt you’ll ever develop it. You’re good — no — more promising than good, but you’re not that good.”

In reaction, Modigliani goes on a rampage, destroying many of his paintings. His self-destructive behavior finally provokes his mistress and model, Beatrice Hastings (Nicole Stuart), into leaving him.

It seems that Modigliani has nothing left, but then his inner core bursts forth. It is a quintessential expression of tenaciousness, which, for Johnson, is at the heart of this play.

“He’s got so much behind him; he’s got so much fire in his belly; he’s got so much genuine artistic inspiration; and he’s flying in the face of incredible obstacles. He’s got tuberculosis; he’s out of money; he’s in questionable company; he doesn’t have two cents to rub together; he doesn’t have any food; it’s incredibly cold, and it’s raining. He’s got some hard knocks and close calls, and he just won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. I think the universal theme is tenacity.”


“Modigliani” at the Open Fist Theatre Company, 6209 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90038. 323.882.6912. Mon. April 30 (preview) – Thurs. May 24, 2012. Reservations: https://openfist.secure.force.com/ticket

Gala Opening:
Tuesday, May 1st @ 8pm 
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday at 8pm

Gala Opening Tickets- $30.00
Preview tickets: $15.00
VIP Tickets $34.00 ~ Includes Wine
Regular tickets $20 ~ Students & Seniors – $15

‘Chorus Line’ composer’s music still has a kick


When the cast of “A Chorus Line” sings “What I Did for Love,” an emotional piece about dancers’ dedication to their craft, 16 actors stand on an empty stage singing from the heart. No helicopters or flying witches, no cats, puppets or falling chandeliers cascading through the Ahmanson Theatre in this revival of the longest-running American Broadway musical, which continues in Los Angeles through July 6.

With music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban and concept by Michael Bennet, the story seems as relevant today as it was at its 1975 New York premiere. “I think that there’s an empathy of the show,” Hamlisch, 64, said in a phone interview from his home in New York. “People see themselves in the show.”

The son of Viennese Jewish parents, Lily and Max — the latter an accordionist and bandleader in New York — music was always central to Hamlisch’s life.

“A piano was in the house, and I was magnetically drawn to it,” he said. “Having the genes of my father, I had a predilection to music.”

In 1951, a few months before he turned 7, he became the youngest person ever accepted to Juilliard. “I can’t really say I loved music right away, but I could do it well. And I started writing songs,” he said.

He is known for his versatility, both musically and thematically: His works range from his adaptation of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” for the Paul Newman-Robert Redford film, “The Sting,” to a little song written by Alan and Marilyn Bergman made famous by Barbra Streisand titled, “The Way We Were.”

Hamlisch said “The Sting” was the project he most enjoyed doing; much more difficult was writing for the Holocaust drama, “Sophie’s Choice”: “It was a fine line between doing tragedy and going too syrupy,” Hamlisch said. But writing for the different genres shifts the focus of a composer.

“In concerts you put yourself out there. On stage you have music that you have the lyrics to in the forefront. Music in the background of movies heightens emotion,” said Hamlisch, who helped turn Neil Simon’s 1977 film “The Goodbye Girl” into a musical in 1993 and won an Oscar when “A Chorus Line” came to the screen in 1985. But, he said, the composer must try not to “call too much attention to what you are doing.”

Hamlisch received a Pulitzer Prize for “A Chorus Line,” which, when added to his Tony (“A Chorus Line”); Grammys (two each for “The Way We Were” and “The Sting,”); Emmys (including one for “Barbra Streisand — Timeless”); and Oscars (“The Way We Were” and “The Sting” in the same night), makes him only one of two men to have won all five trademark awards — the other being Richard Rodgers, who Hamlisch says was one of his influences. (Fittingly, Hamlisch also received the Richard Rodgers Award from the ASCAP Foundation in 2006, which recognizes a lifetime of achievement for a veteran composer or lyricist of musical theater.)

“A Chorus Line” played more than 6,000 performances during its initial Broadway run, but it hasn’t been seen at a major Los Angeles venue since the late 1970s when it came to the Pantages. At the time, the idea of a stage production that brought up the themes of sex and homosexuality was almost unheard of. Nevertheless, the opening lyrics of the show’s finale — “One singular sensation …” — have become iconic.

They resonate for any actor or dancer who’s ever gone for an audition, Hamlisch said, “particularly today, the whole idea of being on the line and needing a job.”

The “line” he refers to is, literally, a long piece of tape that stretches from one end of the stage to the other. It, along with a wall of mirrors along the back of the stage, are the only set adornments throughout the show.

The cast members return to the line between every musical number, as each is interviewed by the director, Zack, about their family backgrounds and what got them involved in dancing. The characters find the questioning unusual for a dance audition.

The characters reveal their stories through a mixture of singing and dancing — with some pantomime thrown in. Hamlisch said that from the beginning the creators felt that certain stories were best told through song, others through dance.

For example, the song “Nothing,” about one dancer’s experience of being told by a high school teacher than she’d never succeed as an actress, “seemed to be the type of thing that you wanted to put to music,” he said.

“Other stories,” such as a monologue by gay dancer Paul, “you felt didn’t sing as well as they would speak,” Hamlisch said.

“‘At the Ballet’ is always special. It is the heart and soul,” he said, of the song sung by three of the female dancers who each found refuge at the ballet — where “everything was beautiful” — to escape unhappy childhoods.

Hamlisch said that for anyone to make it in the arts, it is important to have passion, but stay true to who you are, as the “Chorus Line” dancers learn during the course of their “audition.”

“I wouldn’t follow in anyone’s footsteps, you have to go on your own path,” Hamlisch said. “I would say, ‘Follow the passion.’ If you don’t have that, don’t do it.”

“A Chorus Line” runs through July 6 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. (in the Music Center downtown). For tickets, call (213) 628-2772.

Pilar Millhollen puts it all on the ‘Line’


Of all the numbers in “A Chorus Line,” Pilar Millhollen, who plays Bebe, said she always thought the trio song, “At the Ballet,” “was the best.”

And it’s not just because Millhollen is one of the three actresses who sings it nightly at the Ahmanson Theatre.

“[During the song] the director kept saying ‘Be yourself.’ It’s an easy thing for me to tap into,” she said of playing Bebe, whose mother tells her she would be “attractive” and “different,” not pretty, when she got older.

“Growing up, I thought I was hideous,” Millhollen said. “Now as an adult I don’t have the same issue. I was really good friends with my mom, who’d always put down her own looks … and people would say I looked like her.”

When Millhollen first auditioned for “A Chorus Line,” things didn’t turn out quite the way she had hoped.

“I had been up for the revival and I had kind of a not-so-good singing audition — which was unacceptable because I consider myself a singer,” said Millhollen, who grew up in Portland, Ore., and first encountered “A Chorus Line” at a community theater when she was in high school. “When it came around again I wanted to redeem myself. I thought, ‘I’m going to show them.'”

She said that, unlike many of the characters in “A Chorus Line,” it wasn’t “The Red Shoes” that prompted her to start dancing.

“When I was 14, I saw the first national tour of ‘Crazy For You,’ she said. “I saw that show and that’s what made me want to be a dancer. It was the most wonderful thing I’ve every seen.”

“Dancing is visceral,” she added. “It’s really immediate. It speaks more to your emotions than intellect. All you have is a visual connection.”

She says “A Chorus Line’s” longevity is not surprising.

“It addresses people’s basic hopes and fears in their inner psyche,” she said. “You see the on-stage dancing and you hear their stories. Anyone can sit in the audience and relate…. In the 1970s, not a lot of shows addressed [gay] issues.”

Millhollen said one of the hardest things about being one of 17 members of a cast is having to fill in the blanks of your character’s background. When “A Chorus Line” became a movie in 1985, there were several tweaks to the show, especially with Bebe’s character, who reveals she had breakdown after a previous audition where she started crying and couldn’t stop (something that never comes up in the stage production). Millhollen opted to go another route.

“It’s a tough character — [Bebe] has very little material. Besides singing, she only says a few things in the play,” she said. “When we sat around and talked about our characters, there wasn’t a whole lot there.

“[Bebe] was brand new to New York and in the script she’s 22, I’m a little old for that … so we made her 24,” said the 27-year-old who currently lives in New York. “She’s from Boston. I fleshed out that she grew up going to the ballet, and had a complex with her mother. Dancing makes her feel pretty.”

“She is a pretty good dancer with an interesting quality, but she doesn’t put herself together well,” she said, in contrast to the blonde, built Bebe from the film. “Bebe hangs back and doesn’t dress so well. Doesn’t know how to make herself look that way.

Prior to joining the company for “A Chorus Line” Millhollen was the assistant dance captain and cast member for the touring company of “Chicago” and said the two shows couldn’t be more different.

“It’s night and day,” she said. “Chicago is all about cynicism and glitter and covering up something ugly with something sexy. ‘A Chorus Line’ is all about truth. We’re very bare, we’re not dressed beautifully. It’s a very different animal.”

For those who hope to make it to “the line,” themselves, Millhollen offers this advice:

“Be tenacious,” she said. “Be your own advocate and don’t take anything personally.”

“A Chorus Line” runs through July 6 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. (in the Music Center, downtown). For tickets, call (213) 628-2772. For more information, visit

A Musical Odyssey, Comic Con at the Shrine, Two’s Company, Man Ray


Saturday

Pack a suitcase with excitement and wonder because tonight you will be embarking on “A Musical Odyssey.” Your journey begins in the South Bay and takes you first to hear the symphonic sounds of Jewish klezmer and choral music performed by the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony. Your next musical port of call will include mystical melodies from Spain, Persia, Yemen and Israel performed by the talented and ubiquitous Yuval Ron Ensemble. Featuring vocals by Tehila Lauder and dance by Melanie Kareem, the Ensemble will whisk you away to the Holy Land with their “‘West Bank Story’ Suite,” a compilation of music from the Academy Award-winning short film. Proceeds from this auditory odyssey will benefit the religious school at Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay.

8-10 p.m. $50, $75. Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Redondo Beach. (310) 377-3510. ” target=”_blank”>http://jewishjournal.com/geekheeb/.

10 a.m.-5 p.m. $8. Shrine Auditorium Expo Center, 700 W. 32nd St., Los Angeles. (818) 954-8432. ” border = 0 vspace = ‘8’ alt=”Alan Menken”>” target=”_blank”>http://www.alextheatre.com.

Tuesday

” target=”_blank”>http://www.bonhams.com/us.

Wednesday

Comedian Lahna Turner’s ” target=”_blank”>http://www.improv.com.

Thursday

The golden age of screwball comedy in Hollywood began with a handful of Jews in the 1930s — Billy Wilder, Ben Hecht and Sidney Buchman are just a few names synonymous with slapstick. Jon Edelman is bringing back the farcical, the ridiculous and the fast-talking with his wacky post-modern “Screwballs.” Set in a tiny desert inn, the play has a classic screwball plot involving a divorced couple who can’t seem to let go and end up swapping bodies. The result is, as you can imagine, disastrous and hilarious and screwy.

Thu.-Sun., through Dec. 15. $20. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. (310) 477-2055.

Friday

” border = 0 vspace = ‘8’ hspace = ’12’ alt=”judd apatow”>
” target=”_blank”>http://www.oscars.org.

Composer’s hit musical spells success ‘B-E-E’


William Finn, composer, lyricist and creator of the hit musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” says his own surname is the result of a misspelling. “When my great-uncle came from Russia, he kept saying he was looking for someone named Fein, so the genius at Ellis Island gave him the name Finn,” he breezily explains from his Manhattan apartment.

“The original name was something like, ‘Oren,’ but I prefer Finn, so the error was fortuitous.”

Even more fortuitous, “Bee” has placed Finn back on Broadway’s A-list after a decade of relative obscurity. The new musical, which won two Tonys in 2005, tells of six misfit tweens, played by adult actors, who experience epiphanies while tackling words such as “boanthropy” (the delusion that one has become an ox) and “phylactery” (as in “Billy, put down that ‘phylactery’ — we’re Episcopalian,” the word pronouncer says).

The comedy opens May 27 at the Wadsworth Theatre in Brentwood, starring the original Broadway cast, along with audience members who sign up to participate in the fictional bee (and who are eliminated via elaborate improvisational schemes).

The endearingly geeky main players include the unhappy overachiever Marcy Park (Deborah S. Craig), the Asian American who aces “phylactery”; and sweet-tempered Leaf Coneybear (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), who came in third in his school bee but is competing because “the person who came in first has to go to their bat mitzvah, and the person who came in second has to attend the bat mitzvah,” he says. Then there is Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Sarah Saltzberg), a chronic lisper who keeps getting words like “sluice” and “cystitis” — and who is the half-Jewish daughter of yuppie gay dads.

Finn — known for mining his Jewish and gay identities — enjoyed commercial and critical success in the 1980s and ’90s for “Falsettos,” the story of a gay man, his Jewish family and AIDS. (One sprightly number is titled, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching.”) But his more recent fare, such as “Elegies,” a song cycle honoring his late friends, closed after brief runs in New York. It was Finn’s friend, Wendy Wasserstein — the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who died of leukemia last year — who prompted him to consider a spelling bee musical in 2002.

Although already in poor health, Wasserstein had trekked to a Lower East Side theater, in a rat-infested former chop shop, to see her weekend nanny, Saltzberg, perform in a sketch show about a fictional bee. The production, “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E,” was the brainchild of actor-director Rebecca Feldman, who had never lived down misspelling “bruise” as “bruze” in a childhood competition.

The other actors also personalized their characters. Saltzberg, for one, culled material from myriad girlhood diaries to create Logainne, a somber 10-year-old who wears face-contorting braids and always takes precisely the same number of steps to the microphone. (Logainne gave — and still gives — an improvised, politically correct lecture that draws on Saltzberg’s own, oh-so-serious bat mitzvah speech about children in the Holocaust.)

Wasserstein saw something in “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E” for Finn, now 55, who did not bother to attend the production but watched a tape of it on his bed, falling asleep in the middle of the show.

His snoozing did not affect his enthusiasm for the premise. Finn says he was drawn to the concept of a spelling bee as a metaphor for human experience.”Sometimes you get the easy word, and sometimes you don’t,” says the composer, who promptly wrote the “Bee” ditty with the refrain, “Life is random and unfair.”

But the show’s theme soon switched to the zeitgeist’s obsession with winners, as evidenced by the success of other bee-themed work (notably the documentary, “Spellbound”) and his own love of reality television.

“They’re my favorite shows,” Finn gushes of the genre. “My very favorite is ‘Project Runway,’ which is all about fashion and design — omigod, it’s the greatest show ever invented. And I love ‘America’s Next Top Model.’ I just find winners fascinating. I enjoy the joy of winning.”

His lust for victory can perhaps be traced to his middle school years in Natick, Mass., when Finn says his reputation as a “smarty pants” rendered him an outcast who spent much of his time “in my room, in the dark, playing the guitar I had received for my bar mitzvah.”

He would have loved to participate in a spelling bee, but he didn’t know of any around town. Rather, the prominent competitions seemed to cater to the jocks, who could butt heads in sports, and to the pretty girls, who could vie for prom queen.

“Even today,” Finn complains, “the ‘smarty pants’ don’t usually get the good competitions. It’s still all models and looks and everything but the ‘smarts.'”To write “Bee’s” book, Finn selected his precocious former musical theater student, Rachel Sheinkin, who eventually won the Tony for her efforts.

“Bill once called my writing ‘sub-English,'” she told The Journal, laughing quietly and sounding as soft-spoken as Finn is bombastic.

But Finn had noticed her flair for writing wickedly witty dialogue.

“Bill calls it ‘perverse,’ meaning he thinks I have an incredibly morbid sense of humor,” she says.

While creating the show, Sheinkin wrote in Finn’s detritus-filled office as he scribbled crossword puzzles, ate, napped — and finally banged out a song in a burst of inspiration. “We agreed that the [device] of adults playing children announces to everyone that, ‘Hey, we’re in this to laugh about our childhoods,'” she says.

“These kids who felt like freaks when they arrive to the bee find others who are just like them, and they realize they’re not going to be alone for the rest of their lives,” Finn says.

Whenever he speaks to teenagers, Finn says, he tells them they will be appreciated as adults for the very qualities that render them nerds in high school.

“Inevitably the cutest girl or the handsomest guy raises their hand and says, ‘But I’m happy here,'” he adds with a hearty laugh. “And I say, ‘Well, I’m not really talking to you. I’m addressing everyone else.'”

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” runs May 27 through June 17. For tickets and information, call (310) 479-3636.

The ‘Show’ behind the show


Irving Berlin was right on the money when he wrote about life on Broadway: “

Even with a turkey that you know will fold, you may be stranded out in the cold. Still you wouldn’t trade it for a sack of gold.”

When the curtain rises on a new production, the audience sees only a fraction of what it takes to put a show together. They don’t witness the fights, the number crunching or the lives of actors who count on their role to pay the rent. They see what the backers, directors, producers, crew and actors want them to see: the onstage magic.

The documentary, “ShowBusiness,” captures the behind-the-curtain drama of the 2003-2004 Broadway season, illustrating the ups and downs the public isn’t privy to – from blockbusters that shine to “turkeys” that crash and burn.

Tony-winning producer Dori Berinstein (“Thoroughly Modern Millie”) had no idea how the season would play out when she directed the film, which opens in Los Angeles on June 1.

“I fell in love with theater early,” said Berinstein, who was born and grew up in Brentwood. “I had a tremendous desire to bring that world to life in a film. I wish I could say I knew it was going to be a genius year; it just happened.”

Berinstein’s inspiration also came in the form of William Goldman’s book, “The Season,” which tracked Broadway shows from 1967 to 1968. Berinstein film, created from 250 hours of footage, is the closest anyone has come in 40 years to following a Broadway season the way Goldman did.

The end result is a remarkable tale of four musicals: “Taboo,” a controversial cult favorite that closed after a few months; “Caroline, or Change,” a critical favorite that L.A. audiences loved but New York didn’t; “Wicked,” the lavish record-breaker critics thought would tank, and “Avenue Q,” the sleeper hit that no one expected would win the Tony.

The musical-focused format wasn’t necessarily what Berinstein had in mind (plays like “Golda’s Balcony” and “I Am My Own Wife” also opened that season), but the narrative took shape with the contributions of editors Richard Hankin (“Capturing the Friedmans”) and Adam Zuker (“Broadway: The American Musical”).

“I wanted it to be a celebration about theater and the incredible talent onstage and behind the curtain,” said Berinstein, who is on Broadway this season with the Tony-nominated “Legally Blonde: The Musical.” “I wanted it to be really, really honest. It was a particularly brutal season.”

The film highlights the ongoing clash between the “show” and “business” aspects: The musical that has to close because it isn’t making money, the pure elation from two young creators the morning the Tony nominations come out and the heartbreak when the “sure thing” doesn’t win.

As a documentary, “ShowBusiness” doesn’t pull its punches. A montage focuses on shows with a short shelf life — some closed after only one night — while “Fiddler on the Roof’s” “Sunrise, Sunset” plays in the background.

Meanwhile, one of the more ironic moments involves five critics Berinstein assembled at various points during the season. While the quintet dishes at a New York restaurant, they pan the “Wizard of Oz” prequel, “Wicked.” Berinstein juxtaposes their comments with footage of the show’s growing fanbase backed by the “Wicked” tune, “Popular.”

After all her hard work, Berinstein has created something that draws in its audience until the final curtain call. But would she do it again?: “In a flash. I would love to.”

“ShowBusiness” runs June 1-8 at The Landmark, 10800 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles.

For more information, visit ” target = “_blank”>http://myspace.com/showbusinessmovie

Composer Draws Show Inspiration From Failure


Jason Robert Brown began his musical, The Last Five Years, about a doomed relationship, while in the midst of his own messy divorce seven years ago. Back then, Brown, like the show’s fictional husband, was a “young, ambitious Jewish kid from New York” with a non-Jewish actress wife, he said in a telephone interview from his New York home.

At 29, he had just won the Tony Award for best score for Alfred Uhry’s Parade, one of the youngest composers ever to do so. The 1998 musical placed him among a cadre of innovative young composers, also including Adam Guettel and Jeanine Tesori, critics have called the successors of Stephen Sondheim

But as Brown’s Broadway star appeared to be rising, his marriage to another artist was disintegrating. It could’t have helped that he was, in his words, “angry when I came out of the womb.”

The fictional husband in Years channels this kind of rage into a fierce ambition: “People who are that driven feel … they’ve got to get revenge on something; they’re going to show somebody,” Brown said.One can’t help but wonder whether the composer is speaking, at least in part, of himself.

Yet Brown said that as he envisioned Years, he wasn’t thinking of the last five years with his ex but of his “nightmarish” experience on Parade. Getting the production off the ground had proved excruciating — as had the public’s response to the show, which was based on the 1913 murder of Southern Jew Leo Frank. “People did not care to attend the ‘lynching musical,'” he said, bitterness creeping into his affable but often ironic tone.

Parade opened and closed in the blink of an eye,” he added. “I couldn’t make a living, and I had no prospects. So my initial instinct was to write a song cycle that was inexpensive and doable.” But his traumatic divorce inevitably crept into the work.

The two-character piece — named one of 2001’s best shows by Time magazine — recounts the relationship between novelist Jamie and his actress wife, Catherine. The protagonists alternately sing solo songs without ever directly addressing one another, save for one joyful duet describing their marriage. Jamie performs his songs in chronological order, from his infatuation with Catherine to their breakup; Catherine’s timeline is in reverse.

“The device is a metaphor for two people who cannot connect because they are at different places in their lives,” Brown said.

The format has proved so challenging for performers that those involved in the current Pasadena Playhouse production rehearsed the numbers in chronological order, among other exercises, actor Daniel Tatar (Jamie) said.

Brown’s reputation for being difficult emerged early in life, even as a boy at a Conservative religious school he challenged his teachers with in-your-face questions, he admitted, and said “I thought I was too smart for them.”

When he skipped third grade, he did not take well to suddenly becoming the class outcast — lagging behind socially and intellectually — which he found to be “absolute torture.” He sought refuge, in part, by immersing himself in music, an activity at which he excelled far beyond his peers. He had been playing piano by ear from age 7, when he requested the old piano languishing in his grandfather’s basement.

A dozen years later, Brown dropped out of the prestigious Eastman School of Music because he found it to be an “uptight classical music conservatory,” although it did teach him the nuts and bolts of orchestration. He scrappily moved to Manhattan to become a star in musical theater — and within three years had his chance.

While working the cabaret circuit, he collaborated with Daisy Prince, daughter of the legendary Broadway producer Hal Prince, who asked him to work on Parade in the early 1990s.

The 23-year-old Brown was daunted not only because he was replacing celebrated composer Sondheim but also because as a 20th century New Yorker, he couldn’t relate to Frank’s early 19th century experience of Southern anti-Semitism.

He said he finally connected to the character by making him “someone who could be highly reserved and bristled around people,” qualities Brown recognized in himself. “I modeled him after my Orthodox grandfather, whom I felt was always passing judgment on a world he largely regarded as foolish, frivolous and disrespectful,” Brown added.

“Of course, I may have been projecting,” the composer said, with a laugh.Brown projects some of his own Jewishness onto the fictional Jamie, who initially gushes about his “shiksa goddess,” sounding like a more jovial version of Philip Roth’s Portnoy. Jamie regards Catherine as a breath of fresh air after all the Jewish girls he met “having Shabbos dinners on Friday nights with all the Shapiros in Washington Heights.”

Brown admits he, too, was one of those Jewish boys “who always wanted the blonde girls from around the corner.” But he insists he was more romantic and sentimental about his ex than Jamie, who views his blonde trophy wife, in part, as a trapping of his success (Jamie cheats on her, to boot).

Playhouse director Nick DeGruccio realized the philandering, self-indulgent character “could easily come across as a real [jerk], and audiences don’t want to spend 90 minutes with [a jerk],” he told The Journal. “That’s why it was so important for me to cast the most likeable and charming actor I could find.”Tatar, who is Jewish, said he tempers Jamie’s narcissism with youthful ebullience.

“I perform the song, Shiksa Goddess almost like a clown, running around and wildly gesticulating,” he said. “So it becomes hard to dislike the character, although you certainly feel sorry for him. You realize how empty he feels inside, and how he needs to fill that hole with success and approval.”

Jamie’s sweetest moment comes during The Schmuel Song, a Sholom Aleichem-esque parable the character has written to inspire his wife to persevere as an artist. Brown said he intended the number to establish Jamie as a Jewish novelist, modeled after wunderkind Nathan Englander, who earned accolades for writing about his life and heritage. “The song also describes how the characters have to cross an enormous cultural divide, which impacts their relationship,” he added.

The Schmuel Song, for example, is Jamies not-so-Christmasy Yuletide gift to Catherine. “It’s ironic, but that’s exactly what he would do for a Christmas present,” Brown said.

The show appears on the same program with another marriage-themed musical, I Do! I Do! through August 6. For information, call (626) 356-7529.

Senior Moments – Proudly Jewish in ‘Sunset’


Within the first moments of the comedy/drama “Sunset Park,” I wanted to get to know Sheila Oaks, who plays widowed mother

Evelyn Horowitz two nights a week at the Zephyr Theatre. Something about Oaks' authentic, sensitive portrayal of a 70-something New York Jewish woman made me curious.

It turns out that Oaks also is a hard-working speech pathologist. And, most inspiring, she's a 68-year-old who continues to discover herself as a professional, a woman, and a human being.

Oaks grew up in Brooklyn and inherited a passion for singing and the theater from her parents: “My father took me regularly to see theater and to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for classes. My mother loved to sing, and we used to sing all the Broadway show tunes together.”

At 8 years old, Oaks first appeared on stage in a talent show, where she sang “Swanee River” in blackface. She cringes at the political incorrectness, but it was the beginning of a love affair with performing. Oaks pursued her acting while also getting a psychology degree at University of Pennsylvania and a master's in speech pathology at Tulane. Her acting roles have included television, feature films and numerous stage productions on both coasts.

When I asked Oaks about playing Jewish roles, such as the one in “Sunset Park,” she recalled that her parents had explained the difficulties they sometimes faced as Jews. Her father was a chemist who often couldn't get hired because he was a Jew, and her mother constantly warned her children that they, too, might be treated unfairly.

“My mother was petrified of being Jewish,” Oaks recalls. “I heard all these stories and cautions from her, and I guess I took it to heart and adopted some of her fears.”

Oaks occasionally found herself worrying about how audiences would judge her for being Jewish or playing a Jewish character–which she did often in productions such as “Enter Laughing” or “Jake's Women.”

“I think at times I held myself back because I didn't want the audience to be put off. You know, people make comments about a woman being a 'Jewish princess' or about someone behaving 'too Jewish,' like it was something negative.”

None of this carried over in her work as a speech pathologist.

“Speech therapy isn't concerned with anyone's religion or color,” she says. “It's a very universal experience when someone stutters, or when someone has had a stroke. They all face the same challenges and those who work with them are very accepting.”

Oaks has managed to marry her passions for theatre and therapy.

“I love Viola Spolin's theater games and I've discovered they have great value in my speech therapy work,” she says. “When I've used some games with stroke patients with aphasia, words would pop out that they couldn't express through traditional approaches. And when I had stutterers do improvisation games, they could focus on a partner and stop judging themselves.”

Oaks works at The Help Group, treating children with autism spectrum disorders, and for Partners, Jewish Family Service's Adult Day Treatment on Santa Monica Boulevard, with seniors dealing with strokes, cerebral palsy and Parkinson's disease.

And yet, she still finds time for her acting.

“Sunset Park” director Mark Taylor remembers Oaks coming in to audition for the Inkwell Theater production.

“We knew she was right for the part of Evelyn when she walked in the door,” Taylor said. “Her mannerisms, her vulnerability, her voice were all perfect.”

The show — which because of double casting has six senior citizens playing three roles — began its second run in Los Angeles Oct. 14. During the summer, before the show reopened, Oaks found an old tape of her mother and herself singing.

“I thought of my mother in creating my role during the first run, trying to picture her and remember her,” Oaks said. “But I hadn't actually heard my mother's voice in 17 years. Hearing her voice evoked memories, like a Proustian thing when a smell can trigger old experiences. This truly impacted my performance as Evelyn. It gave my acting more colors.”

“I can just hear my mother: 'Oh, so you think what I say is funny? You're going to try to imitate me?'” she continued. “I said to her once that she was a Neil Simon character, and she said, 'You're making fun of me!' I said, 'No! Mother you are a gem!'”

And how does she feel, this time, playing a New York Jewish woman?

“I've grown so much in this role, in not holding back in fear of being judged by audience. It's really a universal character, with relationships and feelings that any woman could feel. But I'm so proud to portray it through a Jewish persona. I'm bringing my own ethnicity to the part; it's truly allowing me to honor my Jewish roots.”

“Sunset Park” by Marley Sims and Elliot Shoenman has been extended until Dec. 4. 7456 Melrose Ave., Hollywood. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111 or visit ekzmail@adelphia.net or her Web site,

Spectator – Movie for ‘Rent’


More people can afford “Rent” this month, thanks to Revolution Studios. The production company brings a film version of the Jonathan Larson rock opera to movie theaters this week, directed by Chris Columbus and starring most of the original Broadway cast.

Set against the backdrop of New York’s East Village in the late 1980s, and based on Puccini’s opera, “La Boheme,” “Rent” tells the story of bohemian artist friends struggling with poverty, heartbreak, drug addiction and AIDS.

Perhaps because of its gritty, real themes and characters, the show has been credited with generating interest among younger generations in musical theater. “Rent” is currently the eighth longest-running show in Broadway history, with a fan base affectionately called “Rentheads.”

Notably absent from the film creation is show creator Larson, who died of an aortic aneurysm on the eve of the play’s first preview. Larson’s sister, Julie, is the film’s co-producer, which should ease fans’ minds about the filmmakers’ desire to do justice to a show that has won both Pulitzer and Tony awards.

Indeed, the sound and feel of Broadway’s “Rent” are intact, even while the music assumes a slightly edgier rock core, and some dialogue is spoken rather than sung.

Jewish Rentheads can also rest easy, as the little nods and throwaway lines Larson wrote for Jewish character Mark Cohen are still there, too. Mark still mentions his bar mitzvah, and talks about learning to tango with Nanette Himmelfarb, the rabbi’s daughter at the Scarsdale Jewish Community Center.

The filmmakers also kept the part where Mark’s mom calls him on Christmas to wish him a happy holiday. That may sound strange, but actor Anthony Rapp, who reprises the role from Broadway, explained that Mark’s character was drawn from Larson’s own experience.

“I know that Jonathan did celebrate Christmas in their house, but I think they also had a menorah,” Rapp said.

This loyalty to Larson’s vision is a hallmark of the film.

“We’re here to serve Jonathan and the play,” said Tracie Thoms, who plays Joanne in the film. “And we’re here to serve all the fans who were touched and moved and saved by the play.”

“Rent” opens in theaters Nov. 23.

 

Hello Jacobowsky!


Jerry Herman doesn’t play favorites with his musicals. Ask him to rank “Mame,” “Hello, Dolly!” or “La Cage aux Folles” and he’ll tell you, “I love them all.” But as for which character he most wants to emulate, he’ll admit that it’s the Jew who calls himself S.L. Jacobowsky.

“I want to be him,” says Herman of the main character in “The Grand Tour,” his musical that originally appeared on Broadway in 1979 and closed after 61 performances. “He’s this man who creates joy in the face of horror. He never lets other people take away his optimism.”

The 74-year-old composer and Broadway icon has another opportunity to see his beloved character realized onstage when a revival of “The Grand Tour,” of which Herman wrote the music and lyrics, opens Nov. 5 at the Colony Theatre in Burbank. Featuring Herman’s Tony-nominated score and an extensively rewritten book by Mark Bramble, the show stars veteran theater actor Jason Graae and has sought to rectify “the problems” of the original production, according to director Evan Weinstein.

“The show had disparate elements that never gelled,” said Weinstein, particularly with “maintaining an appropriate balance between the natural ebullience of Herman’s music and the seriousness of the story.”

“The Grand Tour” arose out of one of the earliest theatrical attempts to explore the Holocaust. The musical is based on a tragi-comic play by Franz Werfel called, “Jacobowsky und der Oberst,” which was adapted into a 1944 Broadway production of “Jacobowsky and the Colonel” by S. N. Behrman and a 1958 film called, “Me and the Colonel.” “The Grand Tour” chronicles the plight of S.L. Jacobowsky, a Polish-born, Jewish refugee trapped in Nazi-occupied France. Accompanied by an anti-Semitic Polish officer carrying important underground papers, the indomitable Jacobowsky attempts to flee France for England. Along the way, he falls in love with Marianne, the colonel’s charming French girlfriend, pretends to be a circus performer, hides in a brothel and, above all, forges a friendship with the initially hostile colonel.

After its Broadway run, “The Grand Tour,” aside from a 1988 Jewish Repertory Theatre production, fell into obscurity. In the original script, “The Nazi characters were more farcical elements, think ‘Hogan’s Heroes,’ and today, are out of step with where Americans understand the Holocaust,” said Weinstein, who has a day job as the co-executive producer of the CBS reality series, “The Amazing Race.” In the new version, “the Nazis are a more constant presence so the audience gets a better sense of the terrible reality the characters face. At the same, there’s humor that the characters use to put a wall between themselves and the horror.”

The challenge of striking this balance played out in a recent rehearsal. In the part of the show where Jacobowsky is singing of his love for Marianne, actor Graae had to stop several times to consult with Weinstein.

“It’s such a lovely song and so casual,” Graae told the director. “But I’m in the middle of fleeing the Nazis. I need to play against the loveliness of the song.”

With the nuance updated and otherwise adjusted through Weinstein’s direction and Bramble’s book, Herman said that now, “all the song and dance numbers are inherent to the production. There’s no mindless dancing, no people sliding down staircases. And the hope is that you get a sense of the genuine threat that wasn’t in the original production.”

For Herman, “The Grand Tour” has always represented a return to Jewish roots. After his first Broadway musical, “Milk and Honey,” about the founding of the State of Israel and, premiered in 1961, producer David Merrick “told me I had to prove I could be more American,” Herman recalled. “So I started tackling shows with more American characters like Dolly and Mame.”

Herman lost no close relatives in the Holocaust, but his maternal grandmother would tell him stories “about running from the czar. The story of the Jewish refugee was a familiar one to me,” he said.

Growing up in New Jersey, Herman learned to play the piano without formal training and received his big break at 17, courtesy of his mother who taught Jewish music at the local Y. Though he wanted to be an architect, his mother had arranged for him to meet famed Broadway lyricist Frank Loesser.

“I was scared to share my work and my mother said, ‘Would you please waste a half hour of your life?’ That line of my mother’s changed everything,” he said.

From the music of his idol Irving Berlin, Herman “learned the value of simplicity, how to say something in fewer words and create melodies that audiences can hum as they leave the theater. I think I’ve allowed my work to be accessible,” he said. “I’ve always written optimistic shows about optimistic, larger-than-life characters whom audiences can take into their hearts.”

Lamenting the current, increasingly corporate state of theater in America (his most recent revival of “La Cage” cost $10 million), Herman said he’s devoted the rest of his life to “reviving the shows that were not the super hits. ‘Dolly,’ ‘Mame’ and ‘La Cage,’ will be here long after you and I are long gone,” he said. “But while I’m still here, I want to make sure that all my children are healthy.”

“The Grand Tour” runs Nov. 5-Dec. 4 at the Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank. Fri-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun. at 2 and 7 p.m. Additional Sat., Wed. and Thurs. performances Nov. 12, 19, 23 and Dec. 1. Tickets range from $43-$48. For information, call (818) 558-7000, ext. 15.

 

7 Days in the Arts


Saturday

The Daniel Pearl Music Day continues on this week and into November. Those paying homage today include Kehillat Israel of the Pacific Palisades, which will honor Pearl’s memory during its Shabbat service, and Madeline Felkin and Deanna France, who perform classical, baroque, Celtic fiddle and folk music at Madeline Felkin’s Fiddlefest in Palmdale – yes, seriously. Tomorrow, Emanuel Arts Center, The Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles and the American Youth Symphony each participate separately. Visit the Daniel Pearl Foundation Web site for details on all events.

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Sunday

Journal Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman lends his moderating talents to two of-the-moment debates this week. Today, he heads to the University of Judaism (and so should you) to ref an “Election 2004 – The Jewish Vote” verbal sparring match between Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Larry Greenfield and Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys). Then Tuesday, Eshman leads a public forum at Temple Beth Am discussing “A Jewish Perspective on Stem Cell Research.” Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Dr. Stephen Forman, Rabbi Laura Geller, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky and Ken Bernstein, a Type 1 diabetic, will offer their religious, scientific and personal perspectives on the subject.

Oct. 17, 7:45 p.m. $10. University of Judaism, Bel Air. (310) 440-1246.
Oct. 19, 7:30 p.m. Free. Temple Beth Am, Los Angeles. (310) 652-7353.

Monday

Wax nostalgic today with Counterpoint’s new CD, “When the Rabbi Danced: Songs of Jewish Life From the Shtetl to the Resistance.” The choir sings a compilation of some of the best-loved Yiddish and Hebrew music, ranging from the religious to the political to the romantic.

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Tuesday

Dentures, cherubic dolls and iron wheels become art in the hands of collage maker Eva Kolosvary-Stupler. Her experiences as a child Holocaust survivor and later of communism have always informed her work. Her latest exhibition of assemblages, “Magical Transformations,” is on view at the Don O’Melveny Gallery through Oct. 27.

9009 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood. (310) 273-7868.

Wednesday

Feeling Kinky? Not everyone does, but today was made for lovers – of Kinky Friedman, that is. The rabble rouser, writer and Texas gubernatorial candidate comes to Pasadena to sign his new book, “‘Scuse Me While I Whip This Out.” This time, Friedman gets personal, telling stories of his unusual life, which has intersected with that of Bill Clinton’s, George W.’s and Bob Dylan’s, among others.

7 p.m. Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. (626) 449-5320.

Thursday

The intimate Black Dahlia Theatre accommodates “An Infinite Ache” this month. The David Schulner play introduces us to Charles (a Jewish guy) and Hope (an Asian girl), after their less-than-great first date. But as we are propelled forward into the future, we see the couple flourish – and fail – as they go through the emotional trials of love and marriage over a lifetime. It runs through Oct. 24.

8 p.m. (Wed.-Sat.), 7 p.m. (Sun.). $20. 5453 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (866) 468-3399.

Friday

The theatrical obsession with gravediggers shows up again in Art Shulman’s new play, “The Rabbi and the Gravedigger.” A “semisequel” to Shulman’s “The Rabbi and the Shiksa,” this one opens to find the rabbi laying to rest his non-Jewish love, Teresa. It plays at Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre through Dec. 11.

8 p.m. (Fri. and Sat.), 2 p.m. (Sun.). $14-$16. 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 769-7529.

SPECTATORby Shoshana Lewin, Contributing Writer

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The roots of Broadway as we know it can be traced not to the streets of New York, but to the streets of Eastern Europe, where Jewish lyricists and composers like Irving Berlin (ne Izzy Ballin) took the music of their religion, added rich colorful lyrics and brought it to the masses.
Musicals took audiences away from sadness, depression and war, and transported them to a cornfield in Oklahoma, an opera house in Paris or the jungles of Africa.
“Musicals sell optimism,” said Mel Brooks, creator of the Tony Award-winning “The Producers.”
For three nights, beginning Oct. 19, theater lovers will have the chance to remember – and relive – 100 years of optimism with “Broadway: The American Musical,” hosted by Julie Andrews. The six-part PBS documentary tells the story of the place “where the American dream is realized eight times a week,” producer Michael Kantor said.
The series begins with the “Ziegfeld Follies” (and the comedy of Fanny Brice) and ends with a look at the opening night of Stephen Schwartz’s Tony Award-winning blockbuster, “Wicked.”
However, Broadway couldn’t escape from the real world completely. Some shows raised a few eyebrows for tackling some controversial topics such as domestic abuse in “Carousel,” homosexuality in “La Cage Aux Folles” and the AIDS epidemic in “Rent,” which hit close to home in the Broadway community after it lost many of its members to the disease.
After Sept. 11, when New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said “the show must go on,” the companies of every show on Broadway came together in Times Square to sing John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “New York, New York,” reminding the city that “it’s up to you, New York” – and that Broadway was ready and waiting.
In 100 years there will be new “Lullabies of Broadway,” but someone somewhere will be still humming “Oh What a Beautiful Morning.”

“Broadway: The American Musical” will air on PBS Oct. 19-21, 9 p.m. For more information on the show, visit

Partying With the Many Faces of ‘Alma’


Alma Mahler-Gropius-Werfel, who married and bedded a string of the 20th century’s most creative geniuses, is celebrating her 125th birthday — and what a party it’s going to be.

For the occasion, guests, after running a paparazzi gantlet and imbibing a welcoming drink, will meet not one but three Almas in various incarnations, enjoy a three-course Viennese dinner, participate in a funeral procession for a famous composer and take a bus tour of downtown Los Angeles.

All right, ma’am, the facts: Previews for “Alma” started Sept. 23, with an opening night of Sept. 30 at the resurrected Los Angeles Theatre, the ultimate movie palace of the 1930s. Closing night is Dec. 5.

Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol, remembered for his rather more somber “Ghetto” and “The Soul of a Jew” at the Taper Forum in the late 1980s, describes “Alma” as a polydrama — which means that the audience, limited to 200 per performance, doesn’t just sit there, but moves with the play and its individual characters through some 15 locations on different levels inside and outside the theater.

At any given point, there are five different scenes under way simultaneously, and depending which scenes and characters the spectator chooses to follow, each experiences a different play.

“What we have is the theatrical equivalent of surfing the Internet,” said Sobol during an interview at the L.A. Athletic Club. “You dive in and out, change Web sites or follow an interesting link. We’re exploring a new relationship between the audience and the actors.”

During a really, really full life of 85 years, Alma, born in Vienna in 1879 and died in New York in 1964, bewitched and dazzled a who’s who of great artists with her looks, charm and intelligence.

At 22, she married composer-conductor Gustav Mahler, 20 years her senior. In one scene of the play, taken from life, Mahler consults Sigmund Freud about his impotence problems.

After a nine-year marriage, Mahler died and Alma wed Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius; although passionate, the marriage didn’t last.

When she was almost 50, she was wooed and wed by novelist Franz Werfel, 11 years her junior. During and between various marriages, Alma engaged in intense affairs with painters Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka, and a list of other great artists.

Even when she was in her 60s, and rather stout, such screen idols as Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn paid her court, while she and Werfel lived on Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills. Her last recorded lover was a priest.

As satirist Tom Lehrer put it in his song (which will be heard in the play), “The loveliest girl in Vienna/ Was Alma — the smartest as well/ Once you picked her up on your antenna/ You’d never be free of her spell.”

And then, “Alma — tell us, all modern women are jealous/ Though you didn’t even use Ponds/ You got Gustav and Walter and Franz.”

Among the curious psychological aspects of Alma, who married the Jewish Mahler and Werfel, was her anti-Semitism, which she easily absorbed in the prevailing Viennese milieu. Her stepfather later became a prominent Nazi.

“Alma didn’t particularly like Jews, but she couldn’t imagine living without them,” observed Paulus Manker, the play’s director.

Added Sobol, “She was attracted by Jewish intellectualism, and though she boasted of receiving the ‘pure Aryan seed’ of a Gropius, after a while she seemed to find her gentile lovers boring.”

Sobol visualizes Alma as a transitional figure between the dutiful Germanic housewife of the late 19th century and the liberated woman of a century later.

When she married Mahler, for instance, she accepted his condition that she drop her own musical ambitions and devote herself solely to his welfare.

“But after that, she picked her own geniuses and tried to dominate them,” Sobol said.

“Alma,” the polydrama, premiered in the title character’s birthplace in Vienna, then opened in her waystations of Venice and Lisbon. The performances in Los Angeles, where she spent 12 years, will be followed next year by New York, her final retirement place, ending the international tour. The play visits all these cities, as well as Tel Aviv, where Alma and Werfel spent their 1926 honeymoon.

In its premiere production in Vienna, “Alma” was scheduled for 15 experimental performances, but, after word of mouth got around, it ran for seven years, Sobol said.

The Los Angeles Theatre, at downtown Sixth Street and Broadway, was built in the French baroque style recalling the royal court of Louis XIV, France’s “Sun King.” It opened in 1931 with the gala premiere of Chaplin’s “City Lights,” in the presence of the star and a visiting Albert Einstein.

Director Manker gave a visitor a tour of the refurbished theater, now transformed to include elegant salons, a bathing cellar, Italian cafe, kitchen, ballroom and Alma’s active boudoir. And don’t miss the marble-inlaid rest room, where in one scene Alma’s three husbands get together to compare notes on their beloved. Karen Kondazian, last seen here as Maria Callas in Terrance McNally’s “Master Class,” will play the key role of the elderly Alma.

“Alma,” will run Thursday through Sunday evenings at 615S. Broadway, Los Angeles. On opening night, Sept. 30, tickets are $125, whichincludes welcoming drinks, the gourmet repast and free valet parking. Fortickets, call (213) 688-2994. For more information, visit www.alma-mahler.com .

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

Chug on down to the Getty today or tomorrow, as they present Sharon Katz and the Peace Train as part of their Garden Concerts for Kids series. The Grammy-nominated South African ensemble gives a family-oriented performance of jazz-/folk-/rock-infused African music and teaches South African songs and dances.4-6 p.m. Aug. 14 and 15. Free. 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 440-7300.

Sunday

On a somber note, the Workmen’s Circle hosts a Soviet Yiddish Writers Commemoration this afternoon. Aug. 12 marked the 52nd anniversary of the Stalin regime’s execution of 14 Yiddish writers, in an attempt to suppress Jewish culture. Today, a coalition of secular Jewish organizations presents a dramatic recreation of the writers’ “trials.”2 p.m. Free. 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 552-2007.

Monday

The Jewish “Frankenstein” comes to the Silent Movie Theatre’s big screen tonight. See the 1920 horror classic “The Golem,” with musical accompaniment by Rick Friend. Film scholar David Shepard provides a rare print from the film, as well.8 p.m. $10-$15. 611 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 655-2520.

Tuesday

Tonight, Improv Olympics presents “Beta Male,” featuring the comic stylings of Dave Kessler, who tackles dating, Jewish parents and other neurosis-inducing topics for your amusement. His buddy, Kurt Bodden, does a half-hour of his own schtick, as well.8:45 p.m. $10. 6366 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (323) 962-7560.

Wednesday

Now on display at Spencer Jon Helfen Fine Arts are “California Modernist Works on Paper.” The survey of from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s features watercolors, graphite and charcoal drawings, linoleum block prints, woodcuts, serigraphs and lithographs by Peter Krasnow, Paul Landacre, Henrietta Shore and other significant modernist artists.Through Oct. 30. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. (Tues.-Sat.), and by appointment. 9200 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 273-8838.

Thursday

For those whose summer vacations don’t include Broadway,a piece of it is now available for the masses. Recently released, the originalcast recording of Tony Kushner’s “Caroline, or Change” features the soundtrackto the show about the civil rights movement, the 1960s and the relationshipbetween a Southern Jewish family and its black maid. $20.99. www.amazon.com

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Friday

In 2001, actress Kathryn Graf’s husband died suddenly of a heart attack, just shy of his 51st birthday. Left to care for their two young children and to deal with the tragedy of his death and life as a young widow, Graf eventually enrolled in a playwrighting class for therapeutic purposes. The result was a play titled “Surviving David,” which her instructor encouraged her to produce. It opens today, for a limited 16-performance run. Ten percent of proceeds benefit “Our House” grieving center.Through Sept. 9. 8 p.m. (Fri. and Sat.). $20. 2100 Square Feet, 5615 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles. (800) 595-4849.

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

Bite off a rose, scoop up your honey and dance on down to the New JCC at Milken. This evening they present “A Magical Argentinian Night,” complete with tango dancers and singers, folk songs and ballet, as well as Argentine snacks, drinks and desserts. Best of all, proceeds benefit children in need.
7:30 p.m. $25. 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. R.S.V.P., (818) 464-3300.

Sunday

Bring a blanket to the The Brandeis-Bardin Institute’s “Under the Stars” series, cop a squat and listen to kid-friendly Jewish tunes performed by the Rick Recht Band, one of the top touring groups in Jewish music today.
7:30 p.m. $15-$25. 1101 Peppertree Lane, Brandeis. (805) 582-4450.

Monday

Broadway buffs should consider “West Coast Ensemble: In Concert” this evening, a cabaret show highlighting songs from some of the musicals the group has put on over the years. Richard Israel produces and directs the one-night-only performance by the ensemble’s original artists as they sing songs from “Company,” “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Cabaret” and others.
8 p.m. $50 (includes dessert reception). 522 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood. (323) 436-0066.

Tuesday

Art enthusiasts tired of the same old paintings-on-canvas will find respite in the form of book-sized abstract collages and box constructions by Hannelore Baron. The artist and Holocaust survivor’s works are currently on display at Manny Silverman Gallery. Or see the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Services’ exhibition, “Hannelore Baron: Works From 1960 to 1987” at the Gallery at Cal State Long Beach opening today.
Manny Silverman Gallery, 619 N. Almont Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 659-8256.
The Gallery, Cal State Long Beach, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach. (562) 985-5761.

Wednesday

Swinging his way into movie houses and hearts once again is the inimitable Spider-Man. Your friendly neighborhood arachnidly enhanced superhero comes to a theater near you in his sequel, creatively titled “Spider-Man 2.” This time, director Sam Raimi has him battling Dr. Octavius, aka Doc Ock, but internal demons lurk, too, as Spidey struggles with “the gift and the curse” of his superhuman powers.
sonypictures.com.

Thursday

SISU Entertainment takes its shot at “fun for the whole Jewish family” with its new “Jewish Holiday Songs” karaoke DVD. Features include menus in Hebrew and English, NTSC and PAL compatibility, subtitles in Hebrew or phonetic English and the option of doing singalong karaoke or just listening to the songs.
$19.95. (800) 223-7478.

Friday

Last chance to catch galerie yoramgil’s latest exhibit of David Aaronson’s “Major Works Since 1951.” While Aaronson, a Boston University professor emeritus and art school founder, generally worked on a small scale, he occasionally went big. Yoram Gil showcases his larger charcoal drawings, encaustic paintings and bronze sculptures before they’re shipped off to Boston University for a special retrospective.
10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Tues.-Sat.), 11 a.m.-4 p.m. (Sun.). 319 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 275-8130.

Odets Revival Hits Venice, Long Beach


Clifford Odets burst onto Broadway in 1935, when three plays by the 29-year-old actor-writer — "Waiting for Lefty," "Awake and Sing" and "Paradise Lost" — opened in the same year.

Odets, the son of Jewish immigrants, was an early member of the fabled Group Theatre in New York, which combined left-wing politics with social realism to help bring American drama into the 20th century.

Some 40 years after this debut, so conservative a critic as Walter Kerr of The New York Times classified Odets as the most talented American playwright next to Eugene O’Neill.

By a happy coincidence, or astute sense of timing, there is a mini-Odets revival under way in the Los Angeles area, with two of his plays now on the boards in Venice and Long Beach.

"Rocket to the Moon" forsakes the proletarian rhetoric of Odets’ early plays for a subtler probing of middle-class characters, caught in the Depression and the wearisome routine of their daily lives.

"Rocket" is among Odets’ rarely revived dramas, which is our loss as demonstrated by the gripping performance by the Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice, teaming up with the West Coast Jewish Theatre.

Set during a sweltering New York summer in 1938, the action revolves around Ben Stark, a dentist in an unfashionable neighborhood. He is a nice guy, as in "nice guys finish last."

He forgives payments from impoverished patients, doesn’t collect rent from his alcoholic partner and buckles under to his embittered wife, Belle, who is utterly frustrated by his unbusinesslike ways.

His father-in-law is the dapper, cynical and wealthy Mr. Prince, hated by Belle and looking for some happiness in his declining years.

In between long waits for patients, various people drop by Stark’s office for conversation and drinks at the water cooler. Among them are a podiatrist named Frenchy, partner Phil Cooper, Broadway impresario Willy Wax and Stark’s wife.

Enter 19-year-old Bronx-bred Cleo Singer as Stark’s new secretary/dental assistant. She is pretty, bubbly, a bit klutzy, a bit silly and up-to-date on the current slang and stage celebrities.

But she has one trait all the others lack: an irrepressible hunger for life and love, which forces those around her to reexamine the rut of their own existence.

Odets’ pitch-perfect ear for dialogue is here at its best, and even the outdated slang comes alive again.

In the background looms the Depression, but it is not hopeless and stifling. The nice girl comes through and even the nice guy is granted at least a fling at happiness.

The first-rate ensemble cast, under director Elina de Santos and artistic director Marilyn Fox, proves that some of the most enjoyable productions in town are often found at under-publicized small venues.

"Awake and Sing" is one of Odets’ best-known works, yet as a more time-bound "message" play, it feels less relevant than "Rocket."

It revolves around three generations of the Jewish Berger family, living and quarreling in a Bronx tenement during the depth of the Depression.

The dominating figure is Bessie Berger, who keeps the family in line and bread on the table by running the lives of all others.

It’s quite a job, what with passive husband Myron; Karl Marx-spouting grandfather Jacob; frustrated children, Hennie and Ralph; wealthy brother, Morty; and cynical boarder Moe Axelrod.

Presented at the handsome and comfortable International City Theatre in Long Beach, the play intertwines a deepening family crisis when the unwed Hennie gets pregnant, with political sparring between the idealistic grandfather and grandson on one hand, and the capitalistic Morty on the other.

As directed by the respected Simon Levy, the male roles come off much stronger, especially the portrayals of grandfather Jacob by veteran Joseph Ruskin and the boarder and wounded war vet Moe by Tom Astor.

In the central role of Bessie Berger, Jacqueline Schultz, a capable actress, is just too blonde, too tall and too youthful-looking to pass as the archetypical, harassed Jewish matriarch. Paige Handler struggles with the play’s least defined character as daughter Hennie.

A pleasant surprise in the small role of supernebbish immigrant Sam Feinschreiber is Sasha Kaminsky in his American debut.

Born in Kiev, then immigrating to Tel Aviv, the 33-year-old Kaminsky has won a slew of stage and film awards as a Russian, and then Hebrew- and Yiddish-speaking actor, and is now launching his career in English.

"Awake and Sing" continues through July 11 in Long Beach, call (562) 436-4610. "Rocket to the Moon" plays through Aug. 1 in Venice, call (310) 822-8392. Performances for both plays run Thursday-Sunday.

The Passion of the Tovah


In a life-imitating art moment, Tovah Feldshuh sits in her Broadway dressing room animatedly discussing politics. Feldshuh — the one-woman star of the play "Golda’s Balcony" — has already transformed herself from an old, disheveled Golda Meir and is reviewing her day in Albany, where she lobbied the state government for more funding for the arts.

She is amazed that the senators gave her a standing ovation.

"Because they have me confused with Golda Meir, I suppose," she muses.

Feldshuh, who is nominated for a Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Play, doesn’t actually think anyone mistakes her for the Israeli prime minister, but this last year of passionately rendering Golda has affected her deeply.

"The most immediate change is the understanding that politics is personal," she says. Feldshuh is a longtime fundraiser for Jewish and artistic causes and — like many actors — a staunch Democrat.

In "Balcony," the 90-minute play at the Helen Hayes Theatre, she inhabits the septuagenarian on the eve of the Yom Kippur war. (Meir never forgave herself for being caught off guard in 1973, and the losses the war incurred.) The play shifts between the moment at hand — deciding whether to attack her neighbors or wait — and the personal life leading up to that moment: her childhood in America, her courtship, her troubled absentee marriage and her life in politics.

Is it hard for Feldshuh to play a politician whose politics she might not support?

"Golda was a practical woman. I don’t know if I have her point of view — but I have her logic," Feldshuh says.

The actress does a grueling, gravelly performance, much of it shouting on the phone, at the audience and to God himself. Felshuh’s performance has struck a chord among reviewers and audiences — which on this night seems to be comprised of religious and elderly Jews and Christians. (Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak have been among the dignitaries who have seen the play.)

Since she began the play, Feldshuh has been following the news, trying to put daily context into her shows. A supporter of the "Seeds of Peace," a nonprofit, nonpolitical organization that helps teenagers from regions of conflict, she is not quite an expert on how her personal politics merge with that of Golda — who is made more palatable by her fictionalization in the writing of this play.

But even if Feldshuh isn’t clear on Golda’s politics, she is clear on the woman herself.

"She has given great resonance about dead honesty, truly modest, humble, nonmaterialistic," Feldshuh says. "It’s the biggest life I’ve ever had the privilege of playing."

The Tony Awards air June 6 at 8 p.m. on CBS.

Screen Scribe


Norman Hudis is a patient man, not by temperament but by necessity. It took the ex-Londoner and current Woodland Hills resident some 30 years to see his play produced on stage, and if the venue is Santa Ana rather than Manhattan, he is as pleased as any playwright savoring his name on a Broadway marquee.

The play is titled "Dinner With Ribbentrop." That would be Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s ambassador to Great Britain and later his foreign minister, who was hanged in Nuremberg as a war criminal.

While serving in London in 1938, Ribbentrop met British actor and screen star Eric Portman and was pleased to find in him a raging anti-Semite.

In the 1950s, Hudis worked as publicist for Sir Arthur Rank’s Pinewood Studio and there met Portman. The actor boasted that during a private dinner with Ribbentrop, the Nazi diplomat promised him that after the German victory in the upcoming war, the New Order would make Portman England’s greatest star in a Jew-free British film industry.

In the months following, the Jewish publicist, a grandson of Russian immigrants, and the Jew-hating actor spent long hours together in pubs arguing heatedly.

In the play, set in the 1950s, Portman is offered the role of his lifetime by a Jewish producer, and their very first meeting erupts into a furious dispute about Jews.

After Hudis finished the play, it made the rounds of London producers. They hailed it as brilliant, challenging and mordantly funny, said Hudis, but rejected it for fear that giving a platform to a handsome, witty and eloquent anti-Semite would offend the Jewish theater-going public.

Now living with his wife, Rita, the 82-year-old Hudis is writing his autobiography, titled "Running Late," and it should be a lively read.

At 16, he was a junior reporter and at 21, as a member of the Royal Air Force, he was the youngest war correspondent in the Middle East. Back in civilian life, he became a "picture plugger" for a studio publicity department, and then a screenwriter.

He wrote the scripts of some 20 "B" pictures and then hit it big with the wildly popular "Carry On, Nurse," a very risqué comedy for its time,

In the 1960s the family settled in Hollywood, where Hudis became an award-winning TV writer. His writing stints have ranged from mysteries, rock ‘n’ roll shows and crime thrillers to bible spectacles and classic comedy.

"Dinner With Ribbentrop" runs through May 23 at the Rude Guerrilla Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana. For information, call (714) 547-4688.