October 22, 2018

“The Greatest Showman” an uplifting end-of-year musical

Movie musicals seem to be making a comeback–or perhaps they never really left.  Original musicals are that much more complicated, attempting to entice the masses to see and hear the unfamiliar.  Director Michael Gracey spent nearly 10 years bringing “The Greatest Showman” to life, work-shopping the story of PT Barnum’s life with Broadway veterans in New York.  When he felt ready, Gracey staged a performance for executives to sell them on the concept.  It worked, and the first-time feature film director moved on to the next part of the process.

For most directors, that would mean a bit of prep and then actually making the film.  For Gracey, it involved ten weeks of rehearsals and producing shot-for-shot video footage (at times on his iphone!) of what would later be re-created by the director of photography, two-time Oscar nominee Seamus McGarvey.

“The Greatest Showman” is a passionate take on the circus founder’s life.  The film balances many issues of the period, including classism and interracial relationships.  While there are moments of un-evenness, overall the production is uplifting; it’s a feel-good movie at its core.

For more about “The Greatest Showman”, including information directly from Hugh Jackman and Michael Gracey, take a look below:

–>Keep in touch with the author on Twitter and Instagram @realZoeHewitt.  Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

Dealing with a Death and ‘Chasing Mem’ries’

Tyne Daly stars in the world premiere of “Chasing Mem’ries: A Different Kind of Musical,” about a widow trying to cope with the loss of her husband, played by Robert Forster. Photo by Chris Whitaker

How does one come to terms with the death of a spouse after a happy, fulfilling marriage of 57 years? That’s the struggle facing the protagonist, Victoria (Tyne Daly), in Joshua Ravetch’s “Chasing Mem’ries: A Different Kind of Musical,” at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.

We meet Victoria in her attic, where all the action takes place, as she is rummaging through items that bring back bittersweet memories, while her husband’s memorial is being conducted on the back lawn.

During a recent interview, Ravetch said the theme for his play emanated from what he had witnessed in his family after his mother lost his father six years ago, and his aunt lost his uncle eight years ago — both couples that had had lifelong, happy marriages. He found that generation seemed to have these beautiful relationships, which, while they weren’t perfect, managed to endure.

“I watched both of these remarkable women have to embrace the idea that they were going to have to live a certain part of their life without the person that they had been with for a lifetime,” Ravetch said. “And it felt like nobody had really addressed that time in a person’s life. … Your entire life has been formed with somebody, and suddenly you have to embark upon a completely new life, and how that’s even possible, or if it’s possible, and how you cope. And so, it began to interest me.”

He said he developed the play in collaboration with lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman, whose songs, both original and previously released, are threaded throughout the proceedings. Audiences will certainly recognize “The Way We Were,” which the Bergmans wrote with composer Marvin Hamlisch.

However, the play is billed as “a different kind of musical.” Marilyn Bergman explained that “The songs come from the interior dialogue that the characters are expressing. They are not performance songs, and there are no dancing girls.”

Alan Bergman agreed. “We always wanted to have, in this play, actors who sing, not singers who act,” he said.  “There’s a big difference.”

Accordingly, Victoria expresses her sense of loss through the lyrics of a song titled “Where Do You Start?” She sings, “How do you separate the present from the past? How do you deal with all the things you thought would last? That didn’t last?”

Her son, Mason (Scott Kradolfer), tries to get her to join the memorial service, but she, cynically and often with sharp humor, vents her feeling that the people who came don’t really care about her and are there only out of a sense of obligation.

In addition, it seems that Mason is contending with his own issues. He was engaged to an astronaut who was chosen for a future five-year mission to Mars. After he missed one of her launches and also objected to such a long separation, she broke up with him via an email from space. As a product of the modern world, in which most of his friends are divorcing, he longs for the kind of old-fashioned, committed and secure relationship his parents enjoyed.

Then there is Victoria’s late husband, Franklin (Robert Forster), who appears as a projection of what is going on in her mind. Ravetch said Franklin’s function is to help Victoria take the next step and move forward. “He becomes the facilitator to help her find her way, with wisdom and calm, and love and support. And it’s just a sense that death is not necessarily the end of a relationship; that it continues on in the mind of the survivor.”

This is a Jewish family, and in the play there is mention of Franklin’s bar mitzvah, when he received a dictionary from his father. “We talk about … these ritual rites of passage that bring a family together and give a child a sense of the next step in his life,”
said Ravetch, who grew up Jewish in Los Angeles. “So there’s all those gorgeous ceremonies that I myself lived through and experienced, and they’re very much a part of
this play.”

The playwright stressed that, although he is a secular Jew, many of the good things about him come from having been raised in a Jewish family. In fact, his grandfather was a rabbi. Ravetch commented on why it was important that his characters be Jewish.

“I think that there’s something in Judaism that involves tradition and family and humor and a kind of pact that we’re on this journey together, and we’re going to make it work somehow.

“It feels that being Jewish means you’re a member of a larger community that isn’t focused on what’s going to happen after you die, but is focused really on the quality of the life and the character of honor that you live in the present.”

Ravetch said audiences seem to relate to the story and are starting to bombard him in the theater lobby, telling him they lost their mothers … or their father is in hospice, or even that they can’t make a relationship work.

“It would be lovely if the play said … we’re not alone, and we’re all struggling with the same things at the same moment in this period of American history,” he concluded.

“Chasing Mem’ries” is at the Gil Cates Theatre at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles, through Dec. 17. For tickets and information, call (310) 208-5454 or visit tickets.geffenplayhouse.org.

Two voices share transgender story in opera ‘As One’

“As One” singers Lee Gregory (Hannah Before) and Danielle Marcelle Bond (Hannah After). Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff

Even the smallest of operas typically are not written for a single voice, much less for a bifurcated one. But there are quite a few elements of Laura Kaminsky’s new chamber opera, “As One,” that could be considered rule-defying.

Its subject, for a start. “As One,” produced by Long Beach Opera (LBO) in its Southern California premiere, focuses on the journey of a transgender person who transitions from man to woman. The two characters  — Hannah (Before) and Hannah (After) — are sung by a male baritone and a female mezzo-soprano. Composer Kaminsky, whose body of work primarily is not for vocal performance, developed the concept and created the piece with librettists Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, a transgender filmmaker whose life “As One” partially is based on .

The resources and production values also are decidedly nontraditional. Instead of a full orchestra, the 75-minute “As One” utilizes a string quartet and film footage. Hence, the production’s director, David Schweizer, believes “As One” has found the right home for its Southern California debut.

“Opera theaters are becoming more adventurous about programming new work,” said Schweizer, who has worked extensively at LBO. “There are certain trends which Long Beach Opera has been doing for decades — the idea of doing opera in alternate spaces and new works on more of a chamber opera scale so they’re not quite so expensive to produce. These are more intimate works that open up new opportunities for storytelling.”

“It’s been a transformative piece for me,” added the New York-based Kaminsky, who traveled to Long Beach to attend the work’s opening performance on May 13. “Working with Mark and Kim to create Hannah, we have touched not just people in the trans and LGBTQ community but general audiences, who have had to think about what does it mean to be a fully realized person. This has been a joyful experience for me and it has led to other opportunities.”

In the spirit of unconventional journeys, Kaminsky’s arrival at “As One” came through a couple of separate “aha!” moments.

Having married her wife in Canada before same-sex marriage became legal throughout the United States, Kaminsky tracked the issue in the news as state after state voted on whether to legalize same-sex marriage. As the New Jersey vote was approaching, a New York Times account of a New Jersey husband and wife with two teenage children caught Kaminsky’s attention. The father was transitioning to a woman and the family was planning to stay intact, even if the vote went the wrong way for them and the pair would no longer be considered a legal entity once his transition to being a woman was complete.

“I said, ‘Oh, my God, this is an opera,’ ” Kaminsky said. “You’re asking the question, Who are you at your core? Who are you if you are about to change to become more than who you are, and what does that do to your relationship? What does society and its rules and expectations and demands do to that transformation of a person?”

Kaminsky filed the idea away on her creative to-do list. A year later, she received a fellowship to travel to St. Petersburg, Russia, to seek out Soviet-era music that previously had not been heard in the United States. Among the music she brought back was a series of Yiddish propaganda songs for Lenin and Stalin, some jazz tracks and some newly discovered operatic arias that Dmitri Shostakovich had written to sing to soldiers on the front lines during the siege of Leningrad.

Kaminsky invited the husband-and-wife singers Kelly Markgraf and Sasha Cooke to perform the Shostakovich works. The experience was so fulfilling that Kaminsky returned to her idea for a transitioning-themed opera, envisioning the same character being played by a man and woman.

“That is not typically how operas happen,” she said. “There was a concept, but there was no story, no opera company, nothing. There was just this persistent idea that crystallized that they would be one person.”

After seeing “Portable Son,” Reed’s documentary about her return to her hometown as a transgender woman, Kaminsky knew she had found her collaborator. Reed and Campbell wrote the libretto and “As One” had its premiere in the fall of 2014 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with Cooke and Markgraf singing the roles of Hannah.

Schweizer interviewed to direct that production, but the assignment went to a director the two singers had worked with previously. Eight productions later, when Long Beach Opera decided to stage the work, Schweizer was delighted to be asked to direct it. The LBO production features mezzo-soprano Danielle Marcelle Bond and baritone Lee Gregory, with the music conducted by LBO General and Artistic Director Andreas Mitisek.

Schweizer, who has a lengthy career working in both opera and live theater, calls “As One” “a very striking marriage of content and creative form.”

“Laura has done a remarkable job of both voicing the characters and sending out a musical message that also kind of transcends the situation,” Schweizer said. “There are very lyrical rapturous moments where the characters make certain discoveries along the way. There are very witty, eloquently scored exchanges where the character is undergoing awkward situations. The music for the piece has a flow and it feels like you can recognize her voice throughout.”

The daughter of a New York-raised father whose ancestry is Belarusian and a British mother, Kaminsky grew up in a liberal Jewish household on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Her diverse career includes multiple academic appointments, artistic directorships and a stint as the associate director of humanities at the 92nd Street Y, where she coordinated the film and lecture series.

Jewish audiences have embraced “As One,” according to Kaminsky, who recently saw excerpts of the work performed at the Jewish Theological Seminary along with selections of Gerald Cohen’s Holocaust-themed opera, “Steal a Pencil for Me.”

“We performed it for the cantorial students and the general public,” Kaminsky said, “and entered into a conversation about spirit and meaning and a human message through music, all of the things that good art does.”

“As One” will be performed May 20 and 21 at the Beverly O’Neill Theater in Long Beach. For tickets and more information, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.

LA LA LAND *Movie Review*

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LA LA LAND is the story, in musical form, of Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) who wants to own a jazz club.  While there’s a romance between the two, it’s a deeper story about how goals and ambitions change over time and how certain decisions can alter the course of your life.

What’s key in this movie is that while you may have multiple paths in life and the course of things may change, it doesn’t mean the outcome is worse—it’s just different.  There’s a tendency for movies that show two different paths to make one the ideal but LA LA LAND doesn’t make that mistake.  It shows that happiness doesn’t mean forgetting all that has come before and that our history is what makes us who we are today.

LA LA LAND contrasts a vibrant, technicolor color palette with a more muted one to show the evolution of the characters and their story.  At the beginning, the characters all wear bright colors which seem to jump off the screen.  It feels very larger-than-life and passionate, since passion is at the beginning of any relationship.  As Mia and Sebastian’s relationship and lives evolve, the colors shift into browns and more muted tones.  A great example of the shift that you can watch for is the color of Mia’s bag.  At the beginning notice how she carries a bright, reddish-orange bag and then watch for when the color changes into a dark one.  It doesn’t mean the feelings or story is dark, but represents the maturity that comes with life.

Mia herself is the epitome of life, energy and growth.  In her first real interaction with Sebastian she wears a bright yellow dress with flowers on it. Later, after she moves in with Sebastian, there’s a scene with no fewer than four potted flowering plants in his previously empty apartment—and all appear in the same shot with Mia.  If you compare their apartments you see her vibrancy as well.  Her apartment is packed with people, color and things.  His is stark until she moves in and then slowly things start to change.

Damien Chazelle, whose 2014 film WHIPLASH won three Oscars, wrote and directed LA LA LAND.  He says he wanted to do a traditional musical in a contemporary way.  It does feel completely timeless and I found myself wondering about the time period before reminding myself that it was present day.

LA LA LAND pays tribute to an older style of filmmaking in three distinct ways through the cinematography.  First, there are a lot of camera push-ins during which the camera moves closer to the subject, more than we normally see in modern filmmaking.

Second, there are a lot of long shots without camera cuts.  It puts more pressure on the actors because good takes cannot be pieced together.

Finally, the third element of stylized cinematography is the use of frequent Swish pans, which is when the camera movement is so fast that everything becomes a blur.   These aren’t styles that are used a lot today and create a distinctive period feel.

Interested in more analysis about LA LA LAND?  Wondering about the Fellini-esque elements and some of the more obscure locations used in the Los Angeles area?  For more about LA LA LAND, take a look below:

—>Keep in touch with Zoe Hewitt on social media @RealZoeHewitt on Twitter and Instagram. Looking for the direct link to the video? Click here.

Actress Rachel Bloom’s ‘Ex-Girlfriend’ is the love of her life

While growing up in Manhattan Beach, Rachel Bloom sang along with show tunes and dreamed of being on Broadway. “I felt like a neurotic little New Yorker living in Southern California. I never fit in,” Bloom said. 

Not surprisingly, she headed east to New York Univeristy’s Tisch School of the Arts for college, where she majored in musical theater and did sketch and improv comedy. But these days, she’s back in California and starring in her first series, the CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” as a lovelorn New York lawyer who chases her teenage crush all the way to West Covina.

Bloom plays Rebecca Bunch, a single Jewish Harvard grad on the partner track at her law firm who, after a chance encounter with her old summer-camp boyfriend, Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), drops everything and follows him to his hometown. The show, originally developed for Showtime, is essentially about a stalker. But Bloom makes the neurotic, obsessed character lovable, especially when she bursts into song, which happens at least twice per episode. 

What sets “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” apart from other romantic comedies is that it’s a musical, with production numbers such as “West Covina” (shot on location in that city) and “Sexy Getting Ready Song” featured in the premiere. Along with Adam Schlesinger and Steven M. Gold, Bloom co-writes all the songs, which range from pop and R&B to rock and Bollywood.

While performing live sketch comedy here in Los Angeles, Bloom earned some notoriety — and millions of page views — for the often risqué music videos she made and posted online, such as “F— Me, Ray Bradbury” and “Historically Accurate Disney Princess Song.” Producer Aline Brosh McKenna took notice and invited her to collaborate, which led to the two co-creating the series.

Although Bloom, 28, admits to having had a romantic obsession of her own, she says she didn’t fixate as much as her fictional counterpart does. “Unlike Rebecca, I’ve gotten to pursue my passions throughout my life. She’s way more emotionally disconnected than I am. She’s intelligent but very unhappy. She really did need a change, but even she knows moving across the country for a guy sounds crazy,” Bloom said.

Her TV alter ego reflects the duality of her personality, she said. “My sense of humor has always tended toward either really, really dark [or] really, really happy,” she said. Bloom believes this is because she and her family “were a bunch of neurotic Jews living a five-minute walk away from the beach. I think a lot of my neuroses, in kind of a Woody Allen-y way — thinking about death and these existential anxieties that I have — are very much East Coast Jew, and they contrast with the Southern California lifestyle.”

This Jewish sensibility also infuses her comedy, she said. “It’s just in your bones to be self-deprecating. Even when you’re a little kid, you laugh at the Jewish stuff. I remember seeing ‘Robin Hood: Men in Tights’ when I was a little kid, and there’s a circumcision joke, and I was a child but I got it,” she recalled. “There’s something intangible that oppressed people have, a glorification mixed with self-loathing. It’s an Ashkenazi thing, the idea of using your words as knives.”

Bloom said that as an only child, she “was always hamming it up for the attention. My grandfather was an amateur stand-up comic. He got Catskills jokes from a book and delivered them well, and would perform at convalescent homes. I’d go with him and sing. My mother played piano. We were, in a very loose sense, a performing family,” she said.

Although her family was not religious, Bloom said she was “raised with a very strong Jewish identity. I think that people who aren’t Jews don’t understand that you don’t have to go to temple every week to be Jewish. My mother doesn’t know a word of Hebrew but can tell you the name of every celebrity who has said anything remotely anti-Semitic. My grandfather was an outspoken atheist but if you ask him what [religion] he is, he’d say ‘I’m Jewish.’ ”

Her husband, writer Dan Gregor, is a Long Island, N.Y., native who was raised in a Conservative Jewish home. “We were friends before we started dating, and I would go to his family’s house for Passover every year. That’s how I got to know him,” Bloom said. 

After being together for six years, they were married earlier this year by her cousin, a rabbi at Texas A&M University. They’re currently “practicing on the dog” in preparation for having children. “I like the idea of exposing my kids to the culture and traditions. It’s separate from spirituality for me,” she said.

A Hebrew school dropout who did not have a bat mitzvah, Bloom does have fond memories of family Chanukah celebrations. In 2013, she and her husband recorded “Suck It, Christmas!!!” an album of Chanukah songs including “Chanukah Honey,” which became an online video hit.

But, for Bloom, whose credits include “How I Met Your Mother” and “Robot Chicken,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is her highest-profile project to date. “This show was my game plan,” she said. “Right now, everything that I have is going into it.” 

All that glitters is Ari Gold

Sir Ari Gold isn’t actually a knight, but the popular singer and LGBT rights activist can be seen in shining armor in photos on his website. His bold and scandalous style, outspoken nature, and catchy music blending dance and R&B sensibilities ensures no one could ever mistake him for Jeremy Piven’s conniving “Entourage” character of the same name.

“My concerts tend to be more about a fantasy,” Gold told the Journal during a phone interview from his home in New York City. “I try to bring an energy to the room in which it feels like there’s no discrimination, there’s no oppression. … I always like to bring this triumphant, positive feeling. It’s almost warrior-like.”

One of Gold’s newest projects is an autobiographical musical, “Pop Out,” which will debut in New York on July 23 at Dixon Place. It traces his journey from a child star singing on shows such as the cartoon “Jem,” to a yeshiva student struggling with his identity, to a proud and out pop star.

“It’s something I’ve been developing for a few years,” Gold said. “When it comes to LGBT people, it’s important to tell our stories because for so long, our stories were not heard.”

Gold recalled how, growing up Orthodox in New York City and attending yeshiva, he was forced to repress himself. Later, he said, “I became very politicized when I was able to leave the bubble of yeshiva and went to college and studied all these amazing ideas I never thought about … things like what you might call ‘pro-sex feminism and queer theory.’ ”

Unabashedly political in his views, Gold cites the second-wave feminist mantra that the “political is personal.” In fact, he may have been too political in early versions of “Pop Out.”

“That political impetus was always very at the forefront for me, but [the director] reminded me that at the end of the day, we’re talking about love and sex and the way we interact on a personal basis,” he said.

Gold was forced to confront tough moments from his own life while creating “Pop Out,” including the death of a former partner and past troubles with his parents. 

“The relationship is incredible these days,” Gold said of his mother and father. “But it was not always that way. There were at least a couple of years in which we were not on speaking terms.”

Gold’s older brother, Elon, a well-known Los Angeles comedian who last year wrote in the Journal about a hate crime he experienced with his family on Shabbat, has been supportive. “I think about the parallels between my work and my brother’s work, too … We both have this strong sense of wanting to be proud, and sort of insist on the specificity of our experiences,” Gold said.

Gold recalled a trauma of his own back in 2011. “I was sitting with a boyfriend at the time on the bus on the way to the Catskills to see my family, and we were sitting arm in arm. That was about the extent of our PDA, and the bus driver told us to sit at the back of the bus.” 

Gold was horrified and tweeted about the experience. The story was picked up by then-Village Voice columnist Michael Musto, sparking outrage that went viral.

But Gold’s story isn’t all lows. He’s enjoyed success on the Billboard charts with songs such as “Where the Music Takes You,” which won the USA Songwriting Competition, and “Love Wasn’t Built in a Day,” a collaboration with L.A.’s own Grammy-nominated Jewish saxophonist Dave Koz that won an Independent Music Award. Of course, the recent legalization of same-sex marriage also is a high point. 

“So many of us [in the LGBT community] do come from religious backgrounds … so to get the support from the priests and the rabbis, that makes a huge difference,” Gold said. “It absolutely is real change … these decisions have a real effect on people, on people who have gotten married in one state and they need their marriage to be recognized in another state, and that’s real.”

He added: “I’ve had the distinct honor of being able to sing at a number of gay weddings. I have this gay wedding song that’s called
‘Bashert,’ so it also incorporates my Jewish identity.”

Some people cautioned Gold that exploring both his Jewish and gay identities in one show might be too much for people to handle, an idea Gold calls laughable. “I always felt very connected to my Jewish identity,” he said, noting that all of us are complex and not made up of just one aspect.

Gold said he is excited to share his show and his story, and he hopes to eventually take “Pop Out” on tour, visiting cities such as Los Angeles.

Gold also is preparing to release his fifth studio album, “Soundtrack to Freedom,” a new collaboration with Dutch producer Subgroover. He’s releasing the album under the name Gold Nation, and it will be dropping later this year.

“I just wanted something that was a little more open,” Gold said of the name. “Anyone can be part of Gold Nation. We are all one Gold Nation Under God, I say.”

Autism musical sells out

Normally, a two-day run is nothing to boast about — but no one who saw the new musical “A Chorus Line of Another Kind” at the Highways Performance space in Santa Monica would say it was anything but a resounding success.

Both “A Chorus Line of Another Kind” and “On Our Own,” which played May 5-7, were written and performed by young people with autism. They wrote the lyrics for the poignant songs, which they sang in front of sold-out audiences.

The plays were produced by the Vista Inspire Program of Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services. The program developed out of Elaine Hall’s The Miracle Project, founded in 2004 to enable children and teens with autism and other special needs to express themselves through music, dance, acting, story and writing.  The arts program was documented in the HBO double Emmy Award-winning documentary “Autism: The Musical.”

At these performances, Hall served as creative director, joining forces with producer Naomi Solomon, director Jason Weissbrod, music director Karen Howard, and composer and accompanist Taylor Kinney.

The stars were the dozens of children and adolescents with autism who lent their talents and hearts to the songs. One participant, Ezra Fields-Meyer, even provided the artwork for the programs and T-shirts.

“A Chorus Line of Another Kind”

“You are beautiful/You are wise/You are beautiful/And this is no surprise,” sang Dashiell Chandler, a boy who otherwise does not speak, but who was able to perform his own stirring composition.

Joshua Erenmark sang his composition, “Disneyland,” which may prove to be the theme park’s single best marketing tool ever.

And teenager Myles Keys wrote and sang “Be the Change,” which turned into the evening’s anthem:

“Be, be the change/The change you want to be/Be be the change/Create your reality.”

Joining the actors were Vista Inspired Teen volunteers, who help their peers prepare and take part in the performance itself. This year, volunteer Sarah Popelka was honored with the Vista “Inspired Teen” Award.

For more information and a slideshow of the performance, visit vistadelmar.org.

The ‘light’-er side of Temple Israel of Hollywood

Temple Israel of Hollywood (TIOH) lived up to its name on April 28 when it threw a free biblically themed matinee musical, “Let There Be Light,” on Lag B’Omer featuring numerous celebrities.

The Sunday afternoon performance at the Hollywood Boulevard synagogue included such well-known names as Alan Rosenberg of “L.A. Law,” Keith Powell of “30 Rock,” and Monica Rosenthal, who played the character of Amy MacDougall-Barone on “Everybody Loves Raymond.” After her brief appearance, Rosenthal joined the approximately 350 people in attendance to watch the remainder of the show, which was held in TIOH’s main sanctuary.

The show was an encore of the synagogue’s gala the night before, which sold out and drew more than 800 people to a performance of the musical.

“When we were able to meet the financial goals of the gala, we decided that it would be wonderful to do the matinee so that friends and family of the cast and crew could come to see the show, so we opened it to the community-at-large,” explained Jonathan Maseng, the show’s producer and son of TIOH’s chazzan and musical director, Danny Maseng.

The musical, written 25 years ago by Danny Maseng, tracked a handful of major biblical stories from Creation to the Jews’ arrival in Israel. The version seen at the gala and matinee had never been previously performed for the public.

Eva Bloomfield, who attended on Sunday, was impressed by the professionalism of the musical.

“Everyone was extraordinarily talented,” she said. “That was a synagogue experience unlike any I’ve ever had.”

Plenty of work went into making it that way, said Jonathan Maseng, who is also a contributing writer for the Jewish Journal.

“It’s a monumental effort to transform a synagogue sanctuary into a theater with full lighting, projections, fog effects and high-level sound,” he wrote in an e-mail.

One Hollywood star who was half-missing was temple member and “Star Trek” legend Leonard Nimoy. Slated to appear in the role of God, he missed the performances to attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington, D.C. He didn’t miss any lines in the play, though — his distinctive (recorded) voice still boomed throughout the sanctuary.

The fact that Sunday’s performance fell on Lag B’Omer was fitting, according to Jonathan Maseng. 

“I don’t think there’s any better way to honor a holiday like Lag B’Omer than by spreading light into the world,” he wrote. “Especially when that light is based on
the Torah.” 

Chanukah: The musical

There are many ways to tell the story of Chanukah. Tap dancing is not usually one of them.

“I don’t know of any other congregation on the planet where both rabbis and their cantor are doing a tap number together,” said Cantor David Shukiar of Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks.

The cast of temple clergy and congregants will strut their stuff on the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza stage Dec. 10 at 7 p.m. and Dec. 11 at 2:30 and 7 p.m. in the original production “Benjamin and Judah: A Chanukah Musical,” the only Chanukah event at the venue for the entire holiday season.

The musical, set in modern times, tells the story of a 13-year-old boy named Benjamin who is bullied at school because he is Jewish. After deciding he doesn’t want to be Jewish anymore, Benjamin has a dream in which he is Judah Maccabee and relives the story of Chanukah. The experience revives his confidence and pride in his religion.

The show promises to be an epic one, and not just because of the subject matter. Between cast members and a choir, there will be almost 100 people involved, ranging in age from 3 to older than 70. Add in the congregants from the 700-family Reform synagogue who are designing the set, making the costumes and providing props, and the number of participants nearly doubles.

“It’s a very big production,” said Shukiar, who wrote the musical and is co-directing it with his wife. He also stars as Benjamin. Shukiar is a composer of Jewish music and musical theater. He has twice been honored by the Guild of Temple Musicians as best young composer.

The lead characters have been practicing since June, and the rest of the cast has been working on their parts since September. Shukiar is pleased with the progress.

“When people are really passionate about something, you can come up with some pretty remarkable results,” he said.

Stylistically, the cantor describes “Benjamin and Judah” as a mix of up-tempo, high-energy tunes and dramatic, soft ballads. There’s liturgical music, traditional Israeli folk dance, a march in the tradition of “Les Miserables” and even a “STOMP”-style number in which cast members use their bodies to create rhythms.

And don’t forget the tap dancing.

“Certainly tap dancing is beyond my comfort zone,” said Senior Rabbi Ted Riter, who will be tapping his way across the Thousand Oaks stage. “It’s fun to learn something new, and I’m very lucky that I get to be on stage with people who really know what they’re doing, and I get to fake it along the way.”

Just as important as the dance steps, however, is the symbolic value of the production, said the rabbi, who appears as Benjamin’s friend and Judah’s brother.

“It’s just exciting to know that there is a Chanukah show,” Riter said. “It’s a wonderful idea that there’s someplace in December that Jews can say: Hey, this is our story.”

That is what prompted Shukiar to create the piece years ago.

“With the influx of holiday programming focused on Christmas and all the wonderful music and feelings that are out there, I always felt very isolated,” he said. “‘Benjamin and Judah’ is my answer to that.”

Shukiar found the process of writing the musical about the Maccabean rebellion enlightening.

“When I first started researching this back in 1996, the first thing I found was how little I knew about the story of Chanukah,” he said. “This was really a struggle for religious freedom — not just Jewish freedom but religious freedom.”

The show highlights a historic struggle that is often overlooked by many who may be familiar with the miracle of the oil lasting eight days but who do not understand the surrounding circumstances, Shukiar said.

The temple’s goal in staging the production at the 400-seat Scherr Forum Theatre at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza is to bring the story to the entire community. “Benjamin and Judah” will be surrounded on the schedule by Christmas classics such as “The Nutcracker” and “A Christmas Carol.”

Tom Mitze, the cultural affairs director for the City of Thousand Oaks, said he’s excited to have the show.

“I think it will get a very good response. I’m happy to see it here,” he said. “Hopefully this will be a big hit and it will become an annual event.”

This is not the first time “Benjamin and Judah” has been performed. Some of its previous incarnations have taken place in New York, San Diego and, three years ago, at Temple Adat Elohim, where it was performed in the sanctuary.

Congregant Mitch Schwartz can’t wait to reprise his role as Antiochus.

“I very much enjoy being on the stage. It’s a wonderful thing,” he said.

As someone with experience juggling, doing magic tricks and performing as a clown, Schwartz is no stranger to the limelight. There’s something different about this show that touches his heart, though.

“One of the beauties of this production is the fact that we have so many segments of our temple community that come together,” he said. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful warm feeling to be involved.”

And, Schwartz said, there’s a universal — and modern — message that makes this telling of the story more relevant than ever.

“There’s a contemporary component to the show, and there is somewhat of an anti-bullying message and to stand up for your beliefs and your rights,” he said. “It’s the Chanukah story told in a way that I think adults and children alike will embrace.”

Tilson Thomas’ Yiddishe bubbe and zayde are back on stage

North Hollywood in the 1950s was dotted with orange groves and squat, modern apartment buildings.

But for Michael Tilson Thomas — now music director of the San Francisco Symphony — the North Hollywood apartment of his grandmother Bessie was a window onto a vanished world: the world of the Yiddish theater.

Bessie Thomashefsky was a turn-of-the-century superstar. She and her husband, Boris Thomashefsky, both Jewish immigrants, were the Richard Burton and Liz Taylor of the Lower East Side, pioneers of a tradition that evolved into the Broadway musical.

In her little apartment, five decades after her heyday, Bessie would sing the old Yiddish songs while young Thomas’ father, Ted, or his Uncle Harry accompanied on the piano. The boy absorbed it all, taking note of the nuances, cadences and wry inflections of the music.

Fifty years later, his attention paid off. As a tribute to his grandparents, Tilson Thomas has created a staged performance, now called, “The Thomashefskys,” which was a hit in San Francisco and at Carnegie Hall and will debut in Los Angeles Dec. 18 to 20 at Disney Hall.

The Disney Hall production will blend live music by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and singers (including Neal Benari as Boris and Judy Blazer as Bessie), with vintage recordings, film clips and projections of archival photos — all hosted by Tilson Thomas.

For most of the show, the conductor’s personal anecdotes and memories remain front and center.

“[This project has] totally taken over my life, partially because it’s turning out to be a much bigger topic than I ever imagined,” the conductor said after the show premiered in 2005. “I was talking to [Broadway producer] Hal Prince about it, and he said to me: ‘It’s not a show. It’s a miniseries.'”

When Tilson Thomas first conceived the project years ago, he began sifting through Bessie’s memorabilia, from old props and costumes to scripts, full scores and crumbling fragments of music that had not been played for decades.

He knew he had a treasure on his hands.

“This all goes back to my childhood,” he said. “My father over many years wanted to do some kind of evening about the Yiddish theater and Boris and Bessie. I was always delighted by the music and stories, but I didn’t appreciate it as a kid.”

Instead, he pursued classical music, studying piano and conducting at USC — and by the age of 19 was named music director of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra in Los Angeles. Tilson Thomas went on to work with composers such as Stravinsky, Boulez and Copland on premieres of their works at Los Angeles’ famed Monday Evening Concerts and, at age 24, was appointed assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony. Ten days later, he burst onto the international scene after a performance with that orchestra at Lincoln Center in New York.

Since then, Tilson Thomas has toured the world with the London Symphony, of which he became principal conductor in 1988, and has served as a principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, among other appointments.

He arrived at the San Francisco Symphony in 1995, and, three years later, turned his attention to his grandparents when he launched his foundation, the Thomashefsky Project.

Its goals extended far beyond a single evening’s entertainment. Tilson Thomas hoped to research the dusty archives of Yiddish theater and to collect and curate Thomashefsky artifacts wherever he could find them.

To date the project has discovered more than 1,000 items.

“Some of the material was in my family’s collection,” Tilson Thomas said. “Some was from the YIVO Institute of Jewish Research and the New York Public Library. We’ve had great cooperation.”

Scholars involved with the Thomashefsky Project have been impressed with the materials. “Without a doubt, among the most important producers of popular Yiddish culture in North America were the Thomashefskys,” Steven Zipperstein, Stanford history professor and member of the project’s academic advisory committee, said before the show’s San Francisco premiere. “The material that Michael Tilson Thomas has in his possession chronicles some of the most critical moments in the production, dissemination and the reception of Yiddish culture in the last century.”

During performances of “The Thomashefskys,” Tilson Thomas wants audiences ALTTEXTto be as entertained as any Broadway crowd. The music, painstakingly reconstructed by the conductor, reflects an orchestral sound not heard since dapper Jimmy Walker was mayor of New York.

“The oldest of the repertoire is about 120 years old,” the conductor said. “The process I followed took me back to the original materials, even the orchestrations from musicians in the pit. When you look at the parts, you have some idea of what was done, but the musicians played around a lot with those numbers. So I had to invent musical business that in an earlier era may have been improvised.”

Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky came to America from Ukrainian villages before the turn of the 20th century. In 1882, while still in his teens, Boris starred in his first American theatrical production. While on tour in Baltimore, he met 14-year-old Bessie, and soon they were twin icons of the stage.

They very quickly began creating a Yiddish theater scene for New York’s burgeoning Jewish immigrant population hungry for entertainment. They brought to America the finest Jewish composers, playwrights and performers, greatly enriching the artistic scene of old New York. It was as if the talented pair took to heart an old adage of free enterprise: Find a need and fill it.

To great acclaim, they staged original dramas, comedies, their own Yiddish translations of Ibsen and Shakespeare (some advertised as “improvements” on the original), and, above all, music. So pliant was his voice, sometimes Boris would play women’s roles. Bessie, too, was known for doing “trouser roles,” women playing young men.

Boris (who died in 1939) proved one of the most flamboyant figures in New York society. He amassed a fortune, but spent it. The couple and their three children lived in a Brooklyn mansion with servants and fancy cars at their disposal. Boris was also a notorious womanizer, which led to his 1911 separation from Bessie, though they never divorced.

Bessie went on to become something of a proto-feminist, running her own businesses and opening her own theater (the Bessie Thomashefsky People’s Theater in the Bowery).

“She was a real pioneer in understanding how independent and enterprising a woman could be,” Tilson Thomas said. “As a manager of her own company, as someone commissioning new work. For her entire life she had a very realistic sense of what she thought was dignified or appropriate.”

Bessie Thomashefsky moved to California in the late 1930s to be with her children and grandchildren. She died in 1962, but by then her influence had been felt far and wide, even if the Thomashefsky name had largely faded from memory.

“The real purpose [of Yiddish theater] was to create an entertainment around controversial social issues,” Tilson Thomas said. “It was a reflection of the concerns of Yiddishkayt, which of course had very much to do with social transformation. When you look at plays like ‘Death of a Salesman,’ ‘Inherit the Wind’ or even ‘West Side Story,’ these are all very entertaining evenings with underlying social messages. That’s very much the tradition of the Yiddish theater.”

Dan Pine is a staff writer at j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California. This story is reprinted and updated with permission from the j.

Naomi Pfefferman, Arts and Entertainment Editor for The Jewish Journal, contributed to this story.

Arts in L.A. Quarterly Calendar: Cultural events through Feb. 2009


Robert Dowd — Pop Art Money — See Jan.17 listing


Fri., Dec. 12
“Laemmle Through the Decades: 1938-2008, 70 Years in 7 Days.” It must have been an extraordinarily difficult task to select only seven films to represent the rich and diverse history of the Laemmle Theatres chain. But someone did it. For the next week, Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles will screen the seven most iconic foreign-language films to have graced the company’s silver screens, each one representing a different decade of its existence. The lineup includes “Children of Paradise” (1945, France), “La Strada” (1954, Italy), “Jules & Jim” (1962, France), “The Conformist” (1970, Italy, France and West Germany), “Fanny & Alexander” (1982, Sweden), “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (1988, Spain) and “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001, Mexico). Films will screen several times a day. Through Dec. 18. $7-$10. Royal Theatre, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles. (310) 477-5581. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.ecogift.com.

Sat., Dec. 13
“Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” With a long list of Top 40 favorites, such as “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Yakety Yak,” “Stand by Me” and “On Broadway,” this musical mishmash of Leiber and Stoller hits is ideally jubilant for the holiday season. Since its 1995 premiere on Broadway, the 39-song revue has been nominated for seven Tony Awards, won a Grammy Award for the legendary duo’s songs and featured special appearances by megastars such as Gladys Knight, Gloria Gaynor and Rick Springfield. Starring in this NoHo production of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” are DeLee Lively, Robert Torti and a host of other talented stage veterans. Special performances include tonight’s opening night gala and two New Year’s Eve shows, one with a champagne reception, the other followed by an all-out party with the cast. 8 p.m. Wed.-Sat. Through Jan. 4. $25-$150. El Portal Theatre, Mainstage, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 508-4200. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.benjamintrigano.com.

Sat., Dec. 13
“Moonlight Rollerway Holiday Jubilee.” Charles Phoenix is addicted to thrift store shopping. Luckily for us, Phoenix has put together a collection of the goodies he has found. Now, Moonlight Rollerway, which calls itself Southern California’s last classic roller rink, is presenting Phoenix and his quirky, retro holiday slide show. The viewing event will be followed by a roller-skating revue spectacular, featuring 75 championship skaters and celebrating the entire year’s holidays, including Cinco de Mayo and Valentine’s Day. Snacks and an after-show skating party are included. 8 p.m. Also, Dec. 14 at 3 p.m. $35. Moonlight Rollerway, 5110 San Fernando Road, Glendale. (818) 241-3630. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.mbfala.com.

Sun., Dec. 14
Los Angeles Children’s Chorus Annual Winter Concert. There is an Academy Award-nominated documentary about this choir. It has toured Brazil, China, Italy and Poland, among other nations. And since its inception in 1986, the chorus has performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Approximately 250 talented and dedicated children between the ages of 8 and 12 make up the LACC. The angelic voices of these preteen choristers will bring to life works by composers such as Aaron Copland, Pablo Casals, Randall Thompson and J.S. Bach in a winter concert inspired by literary luminaries Robert Frost, William Shakespeare and others. The program follows the 2008-2009 season theme, “The Poet Sings,” and features a varied selection of classical, folk and contemporary pieces. 7 p.m. $24-$42. Pasadena Presbyterian Church, 585 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. (626) 793-4231. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.lamoth.org.

Mon., Dec. 15
Reel Talk: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Stephen Farber, film critic for Hollywood Life magazine and The Hollywood Reporter, has been treating audiences to sneak previews of the industry’s hottest films for more than 25 years. The veteran film buff concludes this year’s preview series with a fascinating film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story about a man who is born in his 80s and ages backward. Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton, the odd tale is already making waves and is set to hit theaters during prime-time movie-watching season, Christmas. The screening will be followed by a discussion with members of the filmmaking team, including Oscar-nominated costume designer Jacqueline West. 7 p.m. $20. Wadsworth Theatre, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 365-3500. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.lacma.org.

Tue., Dec. 16
Carrie Fisher presents and signs “Wishful Drinking.” It’s not easy being an action figure before you can legally drink a beer, but that didn’t stop Princess Leia from having one, or two, or many more. Fisher’s first memoir, adapted from her one-woman stage show, is a revealing look at her childhood as a product of “Hollywood in-breeding” and her adulthood in the shadow of “Star Wars.” After electroshock therapy, marrying, divorcing then dating Paul Simon, a drug addition and a bipolar disorder, Fisher still manages to take an ironic and humorous survey of her bizarre life. Meet Fisher and get a copy of her book signed at this WeHo book haven. 7 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.ticketmaster.com.

Fri., Dec. 19
“Peter Pan.” Tinkerbell, Captain Hook, pirates, Indians — we know the cast of characters well. But how many of us have actually seen a full production of J.M. Barrie’s classic fantasy play, “Peter Pan” — especially one that features the complete musical score by Leonard Bernstein? Composer Alexander Frey — who helped reconstruct portions of Bernstein’s score that had been previously lost for a special CD — is flying in from Berlin to conduct the live orchestra. 7 p.m. Tue.-Sun. Through Dec. 28. $30-$70; $10 (seniors and students). Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St., Santa Barbara. (805) 963-0761. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.ticketmaster.com.

Wed., Dec. 24
“49th Annual Los Angeles County Holiday Celebration.” Los Angeles’ biggest holiday show, featuring 45 groups and 1,200 performers, is a proud tradition — and it’s absolutely free! Running approximately six hours, the holiday extravaganza features the county’s cultural diversity. This year’s highlights include hip-hop group Antics Performances, South Bay Ballet and Grammy-nominated Lisa Haley and the Zydekats. Audiences will have the opportunity to listen to sounds and see sights from the world over, including Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East. For those of you who can’t make it to see the event in person, KCET-TV will also be airing the event live. Sponsored by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and produced by the County Arts Commission. 3-9 p.m. Free. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 972-3099. http:www.holidaycelebration.org.

Emily Stern — Howard Stern’s daughter — on stage and off

Emily Stern is 6 feet tall and resembles her father, radio icon Howard Stern, but she does not aspire to a career in radio.

She says her interests lie in her spiritual and artistic endeavors: attending the Romemu (Jewish Renewal) synagogue and its Red Tent women's group in Manhattan; integrating Jewish practice into the Transcendental Meditation her entire family has practiced since she was young; studying the use of Balinese masks to create theater; performing and recording her original songs; and, currently, playing the lead in an offbeat science fiction rock musical, “Earth Sucks,” a meditation on global harmony.

In the musical — which runs Oct. 4-Nov. 2 at Art/Works Theatre in Hollywood — Stern, 25, plays Echo, an Earthling who falls in love with a fugitive alien and uses her music to save civilization from an evil pop diva. All the while, the character struggles with her relationship with her distant, if well-meaning, father.

“The element I like most is that the character comes to see things differently, and feels she has a voice and a place through her music,” Stern said during lunch. “And of course the relationship between the father and daughter … the elements of healing and wholeness that come through.” Stern's personal journey, in some ways, echoes that of her character.

She said she identifies with stories of transformation and revelation, in part, because she was raised in an atmosphere of “extreme concealment … a lot of things were private because it was the public eye.”

Stern experienced her father as a loving, protective parent; she says she was not explicitly forbidden from tuning in to his program (famous for its naked women and other outrageous scenarios).

“But there was the sense of 'You wouldn't want to listen; it's not your father.'” The suggestion was that Stern's public persona was an act, and that the real Howard Stern was an intensely private family man devoted to his then-wife, Allison, and three daughters.

When Emily secretly watched the radio show's late-night TV broadcast, she was confused by her father's high-energy, improvisational performance.

“I remember being like, 'That isn't my dad.  Who is this?' Then once I reached the age when it was maybe acceptable to listen … it really just wasn't what I was interested in, in seeing my dad that way, and also the content.”

As a child, Emily first performed in the choir at her Reform temple in Roslyn, N.Y., where she sang at children's services and Jewish camp. She continued to perform in high school; but studying acting at New York University did not mesh well with her intuitive approach to theater, she said.

She further felt lost then, she said, because her parents had recently divorced: “All the time there was my dad on the radio with women, doing whatever, I had such a strong knowingness and belief in my parents' marriage,” she said. “The loss of that bond between mother and father — I can't tell you how shattering that was.”

Asked if she foresaw the divorce, the actress responded, “Living this character on the radio, there's only so much you can say, 'It's not me' before you embody it — I think that's a bit of what happened.” She said she has come to understand that her father has been in the process of “integrating all selves,” which is important for every person to do.

After graduating from NYU, however, Stern said she “was spiritually at a point of real distress.” Besides the loss of her family life — including the celebration of Jewish holidays with all her grandparents — she felt artistically uninspired until she was cast in the play “Kabbalah,” at the Jewish Theatre of New York. The religious satire touched on celebrity obsession with Jewish mysticism, and Stern was cast as the female lead, pop superstar Madonna. Since the play involved revelation, the cast was required to appear nude at the end of the show.

Despite her father's warnings that the press would have a field day if Howard Stern's daughter performed naked, she said she accepted the role because she loved the production. Then “Kabbalah” received a terrible review in The New York Times and nude pictures of her surfaced on the Web. Emily said the director broke his promise to her by using her image and singling her out as Howard Stern's daughter for promotional purposes. She quit the show, the director spoke out against her in the press and Howard Stern's attorneys threatened to file a lawsuit in order to stop the director from continuing to trash her, she said.

At the time, her father said the nudity was not the issue: “[Emily] made a deal with a guy, and he betrayed her,” he told Larry King according to a CNN transcript, adding “In a kid trying to find her own identity, it's got to be rough. She's got a father who's very infamous … And I think it would be difficult to figure out who you are in life and all of that. And I think she has done a beautiful job of it.”

Emily Stern is aware that in Los Angeles the spotlight will again be on her as Howard Stern's daughter; cruel remarks have already appeared on at least one Web site.

But, she said, “I don't necessarily have to be an image of any person. I can be a human being and that's a good thing…. That's huge for me to feel.”

Click here to read Emily Stern's blog.
earth sucks emily stern

Lucas Revolution and Emily Stern in 'Earth Sucks'

Arts in L.A. Quarterly Calendar: Cultural events through November 2008


Fri., Sept. 12
“A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People.” Angelenos can explore the legacy of one of the Catholic Church’s most beloved popes in a new Skirball Cultural Center exhibition. Through artifacts, photographs and audiovisual recordings that first appeared at Cincinnati’s Xavier University only weeks after the pope’s death in 2005, visitors can explore the life of Pope John Paul II and the historical and personal circumstances that led him to aggressively reach out to Jews worldwide. Pope John Paul II was the first pontiff to enter a synagogue, recognize the State of Israel and formally apologize for the Catholic Church’s past treatment of the Jewish people. The Skirball will also offer several public programs related to the exhibition: an adult-education course on “Jesus and Judaism” and film adaptations of biblical epics, among others. Through Jan. 4. $10 (general admission), free to all on Thursdays. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.thenewlatc.com.

Sat., Sept. 13
“Speech & Debate.” The town is Salem, Ore., and, as in countless other American cities, teenagers are on the prowl for like-minded adolescents via the Internet. However, the three teenagers who find one another in “Speech & Debate” don’t just bond over music, books and movies, but are linked through a sex scandal that has rocked their community. The three adolescent misfits do what anyone else would to get to the bottom of the scandal: form their school’s first speech and debate team. Check out the West Coast premiere of the play, which critics are calling “flat-out funny.” 8 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Through Oct. 26. $22-$28. The Blank Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 661-9827. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.plays411.com/ragtime.

Sat., Sept. 13
Camarillo Art & Jazz Festival. Camarillo is offering visitors a one-day extravaganza filled with music, artists and gourmet food, all culminating in an evening concert under the stars. The 2008 Camarillo Art & Jazz Festival will include gospel and bluegrass music, a farmers’ market and more than 50 artists showcasing their work. By evening, retro-band Royal Crown Revue will warm the stage for a secret, Grammy-nominated headliner. 8 a.m. (farmers’ market), 10 a.m. (music and art walk). $20-$60. 2400 Ventura Blvd., Old Town Camarillo. (805) 484-4383. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.apla.org.

Fri., Sept. 19
“Back Back Back” at The Old Globe. There’s nothing poignant about professional athletes using steroids. Or is there? Old Globe playwright-in-residence Itamar Moses delves into the controversial topic and takes the audience beyond the newspaper headlines and congressional hearings to the sanctuary of sports — the locker room. With humor and insight, Moses unfolds the stories of three major league baseball players who struggle to compete in the unforgiving world of professional sports, as well as balance their personal lives and professional images. The up-and-coming playwright has “clearly demonstrated tremendous talent along with a willingness to tackle complex ideas in his plays,” said The Globe’s Executive Producer Lou Spisto. Moses’ other works include “The Four of Us,” which won the San Diego Critics’ Circle Best New Play Award last year and “Bach at Leipzig.” 8 p.m. Tue.-Sun. Through Oct. 26. $42-$59. Old Globe Arena Theatre, James S. Copley Auditorium, San Diego Museum of Art, Balboa Park, San Diego. (619) 234-5623. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.nhm.org.

Sun., Sept. 21
KCRW’S World Festival. A remarkable, eclectic lineup marks the last week of KCRW’s World Music Festival. Ozomatli toured the world, engaging audiences with its blend of Latin-, rock- and hip-hop-infused music, as well as its anti-war and human rights advocacy. The multiethnic group headlines this special night at the Hollywood Bowl, along with Michael Franti, a former member of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, and his latest band Spearhead. Mexican singer Lila Downs as well as Tijuana’s premiere electronic band, Nortec Collective and its members Bostich and Fussible, will make it impossible for anyone not to get something out of the mix. If you haven’t had the chance to catch this spectacular summer concert series, don’t miss this last opportunity. 7 p.m. $10-$96. Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. (323) 850-2000. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.lfla.org/aloud.

Wed., Sept. 24
Brad Meltzer signs “Book of Lies.” The New York Times best-selling mystery writer is back with a riveting new thriller that links the Cain and Abel story with the creation of Superman. Young Jerry Siegel dreamed up a bulletproof super man in 1932 when his father was shot to death. It may sound like a strange plotline, but trust Meltzer, who has written six other acclaimed page-turners as well as comic books and television shows, to produce a great read. The novel is already receiving major buzz and you can get in on the action in a variety of ways: By watching the trailer on Brad Meltzer’s Web site (yes, the book has a movie trailer), listening to the book’s soundtrack (yes, the book has a soundtrack) and by coming to a reading and book signing by the author. 7:30-9 p.m. Free. Barnes & Noble, 16461 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 380-1636. ” target=”_blank”>http://arts.pepperdine.edu.

Sat., Sept. 27
“Skinny Bitch: A Bun in the Oven.” If there is one thing that doesn’t ever get old, it’s mocking our own culture. Authors Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin do just that in their newly released “Skinny Bitch: Bun in the Oven,” a sequel of sorts to their best-selling cookbook “Skinny Bitch.” The book is a guaranteed laugh riot and today’s in-store reading and signing could offer a sassy twist as the two authors show up in the flesh to dish about expecting mothers. And don’t be fooled, just because the subjects of this book are in a more fragile state of mind, Freedman and Barnouin refuse to make any exceptions to their insightful and illuminating critiques. 2 p.m. $14.95 (book price). Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.jamescolemanfineart.com.

Sat., Sept. 27
“Jack’s Third Show.” Long hair, dramatic eye shadow and electric guitars return for an ’80s afternoon. Billed as a benefit for autism education, radio station JACK-FM stages an edgy blend of retro and new wave rockers. Billy Idol joins Blondie, The Psychedelic Furs and Devo for a musical bash that will have you dancing all day long. 2 p.m. $29-$89. Verizon Amphitheater, 8808 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine. (213) 480-3232. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.931jackfm.com.

Sat., Sept. 27
Museum Day. Art and cultural institutions are hoping to attract folks from all walks of life by making them an offer that’s hard to refuse: free admission to museums across Southern California. Sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, this event gives art lovers and art novices alike the opportunity to visit venues from the Getty Center to the Craft and Folk Art Museum, free of charge. Natural history and science museums, like the California Science Center are also participating in the event. Regular parking fees do apply and advance reservations are recommended for some exhibitions. For a complete list of participating museums, visit ” target=”_blank”>http://www.museumsla.org/news/asp.

Sat., Sept. 27
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s 40th Season Opening Gala. L.A. Chamber Orchestra’s first musical director, Sir Neville Marriner, will conduct its current director, Jeffrey Kahane, in a piano solo to celebrate its 40th year. A symbolic bridge between the orchestra’s past and its future, expect to hear classical masters Beethoven, Schumann and Stravinsky, followed by dinner, dancing and a live auction for patrons. 6 p.m. $35-$125 (concert only), $750 (full package). The Ambassador Auditorium, 131 S. Saint John Ave., Pasadena. (213) 622-7001, ext. 215.


Women plot revenge against a sexist ’70s boss in ‘9 to 5: The Musical’ (what a way to make a livin’)

It’s 8:59 a.m. You are half asleep. Traffic couldn’t have been worse. You spilled coffee on your shirt racing for the elevator. You get to your desk only to hear your “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” of a boss shouting at you that the stapler is broken, you need to pick up a new one and some coffee, too — with sweetener — if it wouldn’t be too much of a bother.

For millions of female (and male) office workers, such a scenario, captured vividly in the 1980 movie “9 to 5” — starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton — is hardly fiction.

Although nearly 30 years have passed since the film’s release, a time when the term “sexual harassment” had barely entered the lexicon, the hassles and harassment of the “9 to 5” life are still all too real.

At least that’s the idea behind the new musical adaptation of the film, which will have its world premiere Sept. 20 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, before moving on to Broadway.

The new production stars Emmy Award-winning actress Allison Janney (best known as the press secretary in “West Wing”), “Wicked” alums Stephanie J. Block and Megan Hilty as members of the secretarial pool of Consolidated Companies, along with the corrupt Vice President Franklin Hart Jr. (Marc Kudisch).

The story features three women who have had it with obnoxious, chauvinistic bullying from their boss. Office manager Violet Newsted (Janney) not only trained Hart but has constantly been passed over for promotion. Shy recent divorcee Judy Bernly (Block) gets the brunt of Hart’s anger after an incident with a haywire copy machine. And buxom executive secretary Doralee Rhodes (Hilty) has to put up with Hart’s constant sexual advances.

Together, they decide to fight back.

Through a crazy turn of events, luck and smarts, the trio — who are barely acquaintances at the beginning of the show — find a way to expose Hart and turn the department around.

“9 to 5: The Musical” follows in the footsteps of a long line of film-to-stage adaptations, such as “The Producers,” “The Color Purple” and “Hairspray.” Its creative team includes Tony-winning director Joe Mantella (“Wicked”) and Tony-winning choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (“In the Heights”). Music and lyrics are by original “9 to 5” cast member and multi-Grammy winner Parton, who penned all the songs for the musical, and the book of the musical was adapted by the film’s screenwriter, Patricia Resnick.

On a recent morning just before the show went into previews, Resnick, 55, interrupted her own busy day to meet with a reporter. Hardly a 9-to-5er herself, she had just dropped her daughter off for her first day of high school. After having a cup of green tea from the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf (“its good for losing weight,” she said), the single mother of three would soon head home to work on a new television pilot, then run errands, pick up her son from middle school at 3:30 p.m. and, after all that, head downtown to the Music Center to watch technical rehearsals for the new musical — which would last until midnight.

But Resnick is clearly enjoying the hectic schedule. She smiled when talking about “how fortunate” she is to work with “the nicest group of people. It’s an instant family.”

She said that although she doesn’t live the life of the typical office worker, her own politically conscious background made her a good fit for writing the feminist-activist message of the very funny film.

“I grew up very liberal, very left wing,” she said. Her father was an attorney and her mother a stay-at-home mom. “Some people play tennis with their family — we protested. Civil rights. The Vietnam War. Everything.”

Her involvement with “9 to 5” began in the late 1970s, when she read an article in trade papers that Fonda wanted to create a film that made a political statement about female office workers.

“I saw in Variety that Jane Fonda wanted to work with both Lily [Tomlin] and Dolly [Parton],” Resnick said. “At that point, I’d been working on Robert Altman’s ‘A Wedding,’ and I was doing a PBS teleplay called, ‘Ladies in Waiting.’ I called my agent and asked, ‘Can you find out if there’s a writer yet?'”

Resnick had some connections: Her first writing job was working on Tomlin’s one-woman show, “Appearing Nitely”; she also wrote a few sketches for Parton on a Cher special.

Fonda read some of Resnick’s work and brought her on board. After some discussion, they decided a politically themed movie would play out best as a comedy and took the idea to 20th Century Fox.

The film ended up grossing more than $103 million in the United States and spawning two TV series. (Ironically, the exterior scenes were shot at the Pacific Financial Center on West Sixth Street in downtown Los Angeles — just six blocks from the Ahmanson.)

Resnick said that the idea of turning the film into a musical was under discussion for a while, but a combination of forces, including funding, timing and assembling a creative team, kept it from coming together sooner.

The break came in 2003, when she met with Showtime Networks Entertainment President Bob Greenblatt about a television project. Resnick said that Greenblatt mentioned he was a huge fan of the film and wanted to mount a musical.

Getting Parton to write the music was essential, since her iconic title song, “9 to 5,” reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and country charts in 1981 and has charted as recently as 2004, reaching 78 on American Film Institute’s “100 Years… 100 Songs.” According to Resnick, who said she loved working with Parton, the new role of lyricist fit the actress-singer well.

“Dolly did the most amazing job. She’s an incredible songwriter — who doesn’t get the recognition she deserves,” Resnick said. “She never had done any Broadway. The songs are so good and perfect for each character. They really stay in your head.”

Among the show’s songs is “Backwoods Barbie,” taken from Parton’s album of the same name. In the musical, it becomes a backstory song for Doralee: “I’m just a backwoods Barbie, too much makeup, too much hair. Don’t be fooled by thinkin’ that the goods are not all there. Don’t let these false eyelashes lead you to believe that I’m as shallow as I look, ’cause I run true and deep.”

“It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to write a musical, and now I have the chance to not only make Doralee sing, but to bring all of Patricia’s wonderful characters to life on stage through music,” Parton said in the show’s press materials. She was not available for comment for this article.

Once Parton became involved, things began to fall into place.

The creative team decided not to change the setting — 1979, before the days of cell phones, Starbucks and the Internet.

“Bob and I talked about whether we should update it or not,” Resnick said. “There were such strong reasons to keep it in the original time. The whole harassment thing … not that it doesn’t go on now … is not as blatant as it was then.”

Resnick also collaborated with Parton on which parts of the movie should become songs.

“All the fantasies are production numbers,” Resnick said, referring to where each of the female leads daydreams about how they would “kill” Hart if they had the chance. In the film, Violet uses poison, Judy is a bounty hunter and Doralee ropes him like a steer. But the fantasies had to be tweaked, Resnick said, along with other scenes that worked well on screen but not on stage.

“At one rehearsal, something wasn’t working so they restaged, and I had to write some new lines,” she said. “The next day, they restaged again, and the lines were cut.”

Resnick’s other credits include such films as “Maxie” (starring Glenn Close) and “Straight Talk” (starring Parton). She acknowledged that she hasn’t previously had much experience in theater.

Working on “9 to 5: The Musical” was fun, she said, and it has changed the way she views the film version: “Now when I watch the movie, I hear song cues.”

She also said that working on the musical helped save her life, because she’s used it as a motivation to lose some weight. In what she calls “95 by ‘9 to 5,'” she hopes to lose 95 pounds by the show’s opening night. Through a combination of working with a trainer, running stairs at the theater and ordering food through Nutrifit, she said she is now within just 10 pounds of her goal.

In addition, the stage adaptation has given Resnick a chance to enhance the film’s story, including a love interest for Violet and expanding the backgrounds of some of the minor characters from the film.

“It seems that in a musical you would get to know people less — I actually think you get to know them more,” she noted.

Resnick, who grew up in Miami Beach, said her family always spent a lot of time at movies and the theater, and she loved writing from an early age. She describes her parents as “culinary Jews,” who went to temple twice a year.

“The rest of my family was in New York,” she said. “My parents’ friends were all Jewish. We all got together for the holidays, because no one really had family.”

Although her own children haven’t attended Hebrew school in a long time, Resnick said they absolutely identify as Jewish. Her three kids have sat in on rehearsals, she said, and are great fans of the new show. Between now and the planned Broadway opening in March, Resnick will be home in Los Angeles working in television again. Her next project is a computer-animated adaptation of “Olivia,” the Ian Falconer children’s book series about an adventurous pig, which is expected to air on Nickelodeon at the end of this year.

Despite the nearly three decades that have passed since the original film came out, Resnick sees much that relates to today’s workplace in the show’s story.

“Unfortunately, ‘9 to 5’ is very relevant. In the Fortune 500 there are eight female CEOs — and we’re 51 percent of the population,” she noted. “What I would love to happen is in 30 years for someone to say, ‘Lets revive it.’ And for someone else to say, ‘No one will relate to it.'”

“9 to 5: The Musical” opens Sept. 20 and runs at the Ahmanson Theatre through Oct. 19. For more information, visit ” target=”_blank”>http://www.centertheatregroup.org.

‘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


Theater: ‘Immigrant’ sings the story of the ‘Only Jew in Town’

In 1909, an impoverished Jewish immigrant arrived in Hamilton, Texas, hawking 1-cent bananas from his pushcart.

Haskell Harelik had fled Russia to escape pogroms, docking not in Ellis Island but in Galveston, Texas, via a plan to route Eastern European Jews to the West. He spoke no English and was the first Jew the Hamilton residents had ever seen. But he found some friendly faces, and he stayed in that Baptist town, founding a dry goods store and raising three sons there.

The unexpected success story is the subject of “The Immigrant,” actor/writer Mark Harelik’s musical adaptation of the play he wrote to honor his grandfather (at the Colony Theatre in Burbank through May 4), and the show has traveled a journey as arduous and as rewarding as its protagonist’s.

It began after another Harelik project fell through at the Denver Center Theatre in 1985. When the artistic director asked if he had anything else that could go into rehearsal in a month, the author’s thoughts turned to his grandfather.

“He had been my hero since I was a boy,” Harelik said. “He was not a captain of industry or a soldier who had saved his platoon, but a different kind of hero — a very kind, generous person who, as the only Jew in town, brought ecumenism to an isolated rural community.

“For a Jew to be so accepted in that all-Baptist environment was inspirational,” he added. “I thought of him as one of the lamed vavniks — the Talmudic concept of 36 righteous people upon whom the fate of the world stands.”

“The Immigrant,” which initially starred Harelik as his own grandfather, was such a hit that it went on to become the most produced play in the country in 1991 and remains one of the most frequently programmed works in regional theater.

The musical, which features klezmer-meets-Copeland style songs by Sarah Knapp and Steven M. Alper, debuted in 2000 and played off-Broadway in 2004. While neither the play nor the musical has been a critical success (reviews of the Colony Theatre show have been mixed), the comedy-drama about the struggle to maintain one’s cultural identity in the melting pot has struck a chord with diverse viewers.

“Jews and non-Jews all over the country have said, ‘This is my grandfather’s story,'” Harelik recalled.

During rehearsal breaks at the Colony Theatre, cast and crew shared anecdotes about their own immigrant forebears. Musical director Dean Mora described his Mexican great-great uncle, who was the Archbishop of Los Angeles in 1890; actor Chris Guilmet, who plays Haskell, traced his roots from France to Quebec to Maine; and director Hope Alexander (n�(c)e Ossipoff) recounted how her Ukrainian father fled Cossack pogroms, never to see his extended family again. Alexander said she loves the play, “because I feel it is a quintessential American story. It is about all our families; strangers in a strange land, who carved (and continue to carve!) the American dream out of hard work, hope and tears.”

Mark Harelik’s Jewish identity was shaped by the old and new world stories exchanged around the family dinner table when he was a boy in Hamilton. During his early childhood, he remembers attending synagogue in Waco, Texas, with his grandparents and “feeling warmed by their contact with their religion and their beliefs.” But by the time Mark was preparing for his bar mitzvah, his grandfather had moved out of town, Mark’s mother was dying of Hodgkin’s Disease and the remaining relatives found themselves “in painful isolation, with no religious or cultural raft to carry us through dark waters.” “The Legacy,” Harelik’s 1995 sequel to “The Immigrant,” draws on the crisis of faith he experienced as he prepared for his bar mitzvah.

“I stopped being a practicing Jew the minute I left for the University of Texas at Austin,” Harelik said. “The late 1960s zeitgeist was to reevaluate everything and start over, and I was very easily persuaded. Thereafter, my relationship with Judaism became embodied only by my relationship with my grandparents.”

The day he sat down to write “The Immigrant,” Harelik had learned that his grandfather, then suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, did not recognize his own name. The nonagenarian was too ill to ever see the production; he died in 1987.

“The play was all that remained of this good man’s life,” his grandson said. “But he was so humble he would have been surprised audiences were so interested in his story.”

In fact, hundreds of productions have been staged across the United States; Harelik created the musical version because he felt the genre would serve the folksy characters and make his grandfather’s saga even more universal.

He said he hopes to write a third play to create a “Hamilton” trilogy: “It will describe the passing of the last Jews from town,” he said. “And once again there will be this all-Baptist community, where for two generations a Jewish family thrived. It’s a trend that is happening all across the landscape. Whereas a century ago there were Jews throughout the West, there are now vast Jewish cemeteries in towns with no Jews.”

For now, Harelik’s parents still live in Hamilton, and the actor-writer likes to visit with his 2-year-old son, named (what else?) Haskell Harelik.

“A century after my grandfather first set foot in town, people tell me how much they enjoy knowing two Haskell Hareliks, one on each end of life,” he said.

Theater: A generation’s history, one life at time

“Showing Our Age” is a play about stories, and the fact that everyone has one. It’s a project that I started more than 10 years ago, though not specifically as an idea for a play. I was a participant in a community outreach program in which we interviewed senior citizens, used their remarkable life stories to write monologues and then performed them for the seniors and their families. The simplicity of just the details of a life — without sets or costumes — created some of the most powerful theater I had ever been involved with. And I have been involved in theater for a very long time, as an actress, writer, director and teacher. I wanted more! I wanted to take this idea and expand it.

That was when About Productions, a Los Angeles-based theater company I had worked with before, became involved. They supported the idea ” target=”_blank”>http://www.aboutpd.org/


Mideast allegory becomes roommate musical

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has stymied generations of statesmen and commentators, so why not try a witty song-and-dance musical?

Such was the thought of playwright Oren Safdie and composer-lyricist Ronnie Cohen, and the result of their collaboration is “West Bank, UK,” which opens March 21 at the Malibu Stage Company.

The protagonists are Israeli Assaf Ben-Moshe Benvenisti and Palestinian Aziz Hamoud, and their battleground is a rent-controlled flat on London’s West Bank.

Assaf (Jeremy Cohen) returns to the flat after being dumped by his German girlfriend, only to find that in the meantime Aziz (Mike Mosallam) has moved in.

Their landlord, named NYC, is an American and, like his country’s State Department, urges the two men to work out their differences and learn to live together in harmony.

Assaf and Aziz find it difficult to submerge their differences, then discover a common bond in their fondness for Middle Eastern food and dislike of — what else — America.

But their temporary friendship proves fragile and is tested by various visitors, including a male and female suicide bomber, and a hard-line religious woman, personifying West Bank settlers.

The musical had its premiere at New York’s La MaMa Experimental Theater and was received by reviews ranging from warm applause to downright raves.

Safdie and Cohen “do an excellent job of avoiding the most obvious pitfalls — partisanship, preachiness and political naivete — even if they get bogged down in allegory,” The New York Times wrote.

The Wall Street Journal judged “West Bank, UK” as “a caustically witty four-person musical with a Middle Eastern-flavored score that succeeds in wringing hard-nosed fun out of clearly serious matters … [a] smart little show that works.”

Safdie and Cohen met as graduate students at Columbia University in the early 1990s and seemed fated, by background and inclination, to collaborate from the beginning.

Both their paternal grandparents arrived in Palestine in the early part of the last century, Safdie’s from Syria and Cohen’s from Yemen. Both their fathers “intermarried” with Ashkenazi women and achieved fame in different fields.

Safdie’s father is the renowned architect Moshe Safdie, the designer, locally, of the Skirball Cultural Center. Cohen’s father is composer Avshalom Cohen, whose songs are familiar to every Israeli child.

While still at Columbia, Safdie became a producer at New York’s small West End Gate Theatre and put on Cohen’s first effort, “Sliced Tomatoes.”

The two men subsequently joined talents for the well-received “Jews & Jesus,” a musical about interfaith dating.

Safdie’s best-known play is “Private Jokes, Public Places,” a comedy about architecture, and he wrote the screenplay for the movie “You Can Thank Me Later” with Ellen Burstyn.

Now in their early middle age, the two collaborators have even come to look alike.

Talking about his current play, Safdie said that his two protagonists “reflect the personalities of their countries … at times they try to live together, they even get along for a while, then they split apart, and the outside world intrudes. The trick is to present the two men as individuals, not stereotypes.”

Safdie finds some encouragement in the warm friendship that has developed between the two lead actors, though Jeremy Cohen is a staunch Zionist and Mike Mosallam is a devout Muslim.

“However, they never discuss politics off-stage,” Safdie observed.

Performances of “West Bank, UK” are March 21-April 13, Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons, at the Malibu Stage Company, 29243 Pacific Coast Highway. $20-$25. For reservations, call (310) 589-1998.

Musicals: UCLA goes to Dogpatch, USA

Senior and middle-aged Angelenos who grew up on the wonderfully satirical “Li’l Abner” comic strip can get their nostalgia fix as the denizens of Dogpatch USA cavort on the stage of UCLA’s Freud Playhouse through Feb. 17.

For youngsters, “L’il Abner,” one of the most widely produced musicals in the world, will introduce the muscular hillbilly hero of the title, his amorous but perpetually frustrated Daisy Mae, Mammy and Pappy Yokum, evil capitalist Bullmoose, Appassionata Von Climax, and the statue of the town’s war hero, General Jubilation T. Cornpone.

The UCLA production, part of the annual Reprise series of Broadway classics, features lyrics by Johnny Mercer, music by Gene de Paul, book by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, and some of Michael Kidd’s original choreography.

The man who populated Dogpatch with its characters was Al Capp, one of the Jewish comic strip creators of the 1930s and subsequent decades, who compensated for the nebbishness of their youth by fantasizing a world of strapping heroes.

Among their number were Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster (“Superman”), Bob Kane (“Batman”), Will Eisner (“The Spirit”) and Jack Kirby (“Captain America”).

Capp, born Alfred Gerald Caplin in New Haven, was arguably the most brilliant cartoonist of the lot, according to TV writer and comic strip historian Mark Evanier, whose book, “Kirby: King of Comics,” is due out next month.

Young Capp was early struck by personal misfortune when he lost a leg in a trolley car accident at age 9. He reached great fame and success — at its height “Li’l Abner” had 70 million readers out of a population of 180 million — but later fell into disrepute through a series of sex scandals and a growing obsession with right-wing demagogery.

“Al was a non practicing Jew who spoke a little Yiddish, but he expressed his background by giving a structure of Jewish family values to his cartoon creations,” Evanier said.

When Capp created the strip in the mid-1930s, it carried strong liberal undertones of compassion for the poor. But by the 1960s, with fame and wealth, Capp turned into an ultra-conservative speaker on television and college campuses who belittled the underdog.The musical performances are Tuesday-Sunday evenings, plus weekend matinees. Tickets are $70-$75, with student/senior rush tickets offered 15 minutes before showtime at $20.

For information, call (310) 825-2101 or visit www.reprise.org

The Calendar Girls: Picks, kicks and plugs



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Have a thirst for higher education, but don’t want to deal with the hassle of test taking, registration and studying? Now you can go “Back to College For a Day” and learn from renowned USC and UCLA professors, among others. Lecture topics include the impact of stress on behavior and the brain, the coexistence of Christians, Muslims and Jews in Medieval Spain, and law in a multicultural world. 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. $179 (parking and lunch). Mount St. Mary’s College, Chalon Campus, 12001 Chalon Road, Los Angeles. (818) 704-4207. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.plays411.com/thrillme or ” target=”_blank”>http://maccabilosangeles.com/.

The Jewish Single Parents and Singles Association has a lovely Sunday all planned out for you: start out with a hearty omelet or toasted bagel with cream cheese at local favorite Katella Deli, then spend the rest of the day with the group, wandering the glorious art-filled halls of the Getty Center Museum. Exhibitions to check out include the photographs of Andr�(c) Kert�(c)sz, the history of the nude in photography and Nicole Cohen’s critically acclaimed video installation, “Please Be Seated.” 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Katella Deli, 4470 Katella Ave., Los Alamitos. (714) 964-7031.

Harry Boychick is inviting you to his bar mitzvah. Don’t know him? Doesn’t matter. None of the guests know Harry, but they will be joining him and his family at a rollicking reception. Amy Lord, the creator of “Grandma Sylvia’s Funeral,” brings us her new interactive show, “The Boychick Affair: The Bar Mitzvah of Harry Boychick,” where the audience joins in the insanity, mingling with actors, dancing, laughing and even partaking in the celebratory meal. This promises to be unlike any show (or bar mitzvah) you’ve ever been to. Sundays at 2 p.m. (open-ended run). $36 (twice chai for the bar mitzvah boy!). Price includes meal. Hayworth Theatre, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (800) 838-3006. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.westsidejcc.org.

Drag your honey out of bed to do some good today. ATID’s Couples Havurah, for young Jews (married or dating) between the ages of 21 and 39, has planned a volunteer day where you and your other can help prepare kosher meals for people with HIV/AIDS. “Project Kitchen Soup” will leave you feeling so warm and fuzzy inside that you’ll forget you woke up at 7 a.m. 7:45 a.m.-12:15 p.m. Free. Hirsh Family Kosher Kitchen, 338 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P. required, (310) 481-3244. ” border=”0″ vspace=”8″ hspace=”8″ align=”left” alt=”pick”>Erudite composers Hans Gal and Robert Kahn were forced into exile when they fled Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. Their music was removed from libraries and destroyed, and they were stripped of their prominent posts. Tonight, contemporary musicians on cello, bassoon and piano will reclaim the banished music of their forbears during an evening of “Recovered Music by Exiled German Jewish Composers.” Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Stephen S. Wise Temple and Kehillat Israel are underwriting the program and proceeds will benefit the Alfred and Miriam Wolf Scholarship Fund of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. 4 p.m. $36. Second Space — The Stage @ Santa Monica, Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, Santa Monica Boulevard (between 10th and 11th streets). (310) 434-3414. ” border=”0″ vspace=”8″ hspace=”8″ align=”left” alt=”pick”>Comedian Wendy Liebman confessed something during a Hillel fundraiser last summer that deeply shames her: “I have separation anxiety … so I can’t do laundry.” The fundraiser was so successful, it’s happening again. Hillel 818 Presents “Comedy Night” is a cacophony of L.A.’s most wicked, witty and wild talent: the handsome Elon Gold, Lisa Ann Walter, who’s not sure if she’s naughty or nice, and Liebman. With nights like these, the partnership between the Pierce and Valley Colleges Hillel and the CSUN Hillel seems like a match made in heaven. 7 p.m. (VIP reception), 8 p.m. (show). $10-$75. The World Famous Laugh Factory, 8001 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (818) 886-5101 or

Theater: ‘The Kid from Brooklyn’ showcases Danny Kaye’s comic cavorting

“The Kid From Brooklyn,” a musical based on the life of Danny Kaye, now playing at the El Portal Theater in North Hollywood, takes us back to the heyday of Kaye (born David Daniel Kaminsky), a versatile performer whose tongue-twisting verbal artistry and physical high jinks have influenced such modern-day performers as Robin Williams and Jim Carrey.

“I grew up with Abbott & Costello and the Three Stooges,” said Peter Loewy, director, co-producer and co-writer of the show, adding that Kaye was even more talented because he was not just a comedian — he was also a song-and-dance man. As a boy, Loewy was transfixed by Kaye’s “The Danny Kaye Show” on TV. “He seemed to be talking to me in my living room,” Loewy said.

After that, Loewy watched as many of Kaye’s movies as he could in reruns.

In Loewy’s long career in the theater — a career that has included working on such Broadway musicals as “Barnum” and “42nd Street” and founding his own theater company in New Jersey — Loewy says that “The Kid From Brooklyn” is his most personal project. He had thought for years about doing a show on Danny Kaye, who died in 1987 at the age of 74, but it wasn’t until Loewy met Brian Childers that he knew he had finally discovered the actor who could play the title role.

Although legend has it that Kaye never took an acting, singing or dancing lesson in his life, Childers, who won a Helen Hayes Award for his previous portrayal of Kaye in “Danny & Sylvia,” has trained for years, acting in school plays since second grade all the way through getting his master’s at the University of South Carolina. He appears effortless at capturing the improvisational riffs of Kaye, yet he admits that when he was first approached to be in “Danny & Sylvia” he did not know much about Kaye, except that he was in the 1954 movie “White Christmas.” Childers said he became a “fanatic,” studying all of Kaye’s work, from his movies to his specialty numbers and his work at the Palladium in London.

Unlike zany comedies, such as the play’s namesake, the 1946 comedy “The Kid From Brooklyn” — a film within a film that features songs that seem to have no bearing on the story line — Loewy’s stage production of “The Kid From Brooklyn” integrates all of its numbers, including such famous ones as “Tchaikovsky” and “Pavlova,” into the narrative. The efficient script, co-written by Loewy and Mark Childers, manages to take in Kaye’s beginnings as a Catskills performer, moves through his nightclub acts, Broadway performances and Hollywood career, all while bringing out a pathos of his bittersweet family life.

That is not to say that “The Kid From Brooklyn” doesn’t have a family-friendly atmosphere. Loewy introduces the show by making a few quips onstage. After the performance, Childers, co-star Karen Leone — who plays Kaye’s wife, Sylvia Fine — and supporting players Christina Purcell and Joshua Finkel walk through the theater to the lobby and greet the audience like old friends who haven’t seen each other in years. Perhaps that menschiness is what Danny Kaye will always represent to those who once knew him, and even to those who are now discovering him — a dear companion who spoke to us in the living rooms of our childhood.

“The Kid From Brooklyn” plays through Jan. 27 at the El Portal Theater, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, (818) 508-4200.

Fiddler on the Roof — in Japanese

You’ve seen ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ scores of times, but have you ever seen it in Japanese?

‘Purple’ actress cherishes her own colorful history

It’s not unusual for an actress to assume a professional name, but it was quite a stretch for the daughter of Haya Kapelovitch and granddaughter of Sofia Katz to become Stephanie St. James and star in the African American cast of “The Color Purple.”

St. James has the role of Squeak, an aspiring singer of mixed race, in the musical about racism and womanly fortitude in the South, now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre through March 9, 2008.

Taking a break from her eight-show-a-week schedule, St. James spoke with deep affection about her grandmother, Sofia Katz, a Holocaust survivor from Poland.

Katz was a small child when the Nazis swept into her village of Budslav and killed her parents and siblings, along with most of the 175 resident Jewish families.

St. James isn’t sure how her grandmother survived.

“She never liked to talk about it,” the actress said.

At age 12, Katz resettled in Israel, worked at the Kfar Harif moshav, married and had a daughter named Haya, who grew up and enrolled at the Hebrew University.

“One day, while standing in the cafeteria line, she met a South American student from Guyana. His name was James Smith, they married, and had a son, my brother Nicholas, who was born in Jerusalem,” St. James said.

In 1972, the Smiths moved to Miami, where St. James was born in 1974. Being raised in a mixed-race family in the South had its problems, but three years later the family moved to the more liberal environment of the San Francisco Bay Area.

“My parents spoke Hebrew at home, and until I was 6 or 7, I spoke it quite fluently, but then I lost it,” St. James recalled. “I can still understand quite a bit, but I don’t speak it.”

Her father was raised as a Seventh Day Adventist, but there is no doubt about her own identity.

“I am Jewish,” she said, and hopes one day to fulfill her grandmother’s dream that she marry a nice Jewish boy.

Her closest family relationship was with her grandmother, who died two months ago.

“My grandmother was a truly strong woman, who spoke six languages and went to junior college to learn English,” St. James said. “She wasn’t happy when her daughter married a non-Jew, but she loved us grandchildren and she lived for us. We talked to each other every day.”

In 1996, St. James visited Israel, where she has many cousins and friends.

Her mother recognized Stephanie’s talents early on and enrolled her in dancing, singing and acting classes. St. James applies her talents as a recording artist, spanning the genres of soul, rock and pop, and has performed in New York and with the European tour companies of “Grease,” “Fame” and “Footloose,” as well as in films.

When not touring, St. James lives in North Hollywood.

“The Color Purple” is presented by Oprah Winfrey and is headlined by the musical’s Broadway stars Jeannette Bayardelle, Felicia P. Fields, and Michelle Williams, former member of Destiny’s Child.

For tickets, call (213) 972-4400 or visit http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Stephanie St. James

Producer Josephson’s vision for a new fairy-tale princess stars in Disney’s ‘Enchanted’

One of Barry Josephson’s first forays into the world of fairy tales was in an elementary school production of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Although the “Men in Black” producer doesn’t remember which dwarf he played, that glimmer of the land between “once upon a time” and “happily ever after,” started him on the path to creating Disney’s latest film, “Enchanted,” opening in theaters Nov. 21.

In the grand tradition of classic Disney fairy tales, this part-animated and part-live-action musical begins in the fictional land of Andalasia, where a young maiden named Giselle (“Junebug’s” Amy Adams), sings to her woodland friends, meets a prince (“Hairspray’s” James Marsden), encounters an evil queen (Academy Award-winner Susan Sarandon) and gets pushed into a well that transports her to modern-day Times Square, where she runs into a nearly engaged/cynical divorce lawyer/single father (“Grey’s Anatomy’s” Patrick Dempsey). Well, maybe that last part is new to the genre.

“Enchanted,” asks the question ‘what if,’ which is so intriguing,” Josephson said of the script that first came to his attention in the late 1990s.

But bringing a new fairy tale to life turned out to be about as daunting as slaying a dragon. There hasn’t been a new Disney princess since Jasmine in 1992’s “Aladdin.” Josephson said he read the Grimm brothers’ stories and Disney classics in order to give a backstory to Giselle, who believes that your soul mate is the person who can finish the line in your duet.

“What was thin in the original script was: What is Giselle’s story?” he said. “She thinks she understands the world, so [director] Kevin [Lima] wanted to start her dilemma in the animated world. Then she comes to our world, where there is even more put upon her.”

“Our world” was Josephson’s dream come true.

“This movie was a fantasy come true,” said the New Yorker. “I grew up on 90th [street, between] Park and Lexington. It was the greatest thrill on the planet to film there — I really wanted to see the city sparkle.”

And sparkle it does, thanks to composers and lyricists Alan Menken (“Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast”) and Stephen Schwartz (“Pocahontas,” “Wicked”), who third collaboration created a half-dozen new songs for the film: from the sweet opening, “True Love’s Kiss” to the Central Park grand production number, “That’s How You’ll Know” to the incredibly romantic ballad, “So Close” and the new Carrie Underwood song, “Ever, Ever After,” which is already being played on Radio Disney.

However, Josephson said his favorite tune is a nod back to his “dwarf” days.

“I really love ‘The Happy Working Song,'” he said of a number that takes place in live-action as Giselle tries to clean up Dempsey’s dirty apartment (think Snow White). We won’t spoil the surprise by mentioning which creatures show up to help.

And even though Josephson said he doesn’t plan to break into song while getting ready for Chanukah, he isn’t opposed to infusing his life with a little fairy dust: “If you make a movie like this, it makes you sort of joyous,” he said.


Chabadmania, Ed Asner, Jewish Big Brothers and Sisters

The Chabad Telethon. You’ve heard of it, you’ve seen the banners all over town, you recognize the dancing rabbi image, maybe you caught snatches of the televised event, and maybe you even picked up the phone and made a pledge. But if you’ve never been to the studio during the taping of the six-hour fundraising extravaganza, you haven’t really experienced it.

I spent two hours at KCET studios on Sunday, Sept. 9, and if I hadn’t had to be somewhere else that evening, I would have gladly stayed longer. The atmosphere burst with infectious energy. The lounge teemed with smiling rabbis, happy sponsors and jovial performers.

Televisions displayed the celebration of life going on in the building next door and the crowd alternated between watching, commenting, socializing and eating (there was a fully catered kosher(!) meal of turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes).

The stage buzzed with fervent activity, and not just between acts. I expected the place to grow quiet during the taping, with the small audience sitting in a respectful hush, the crew moving about soundlessly. But not at the Chabad Telethon.

People moved in and out of their seats in the separated women’s and men’s sections. A hodgepodge of presenters, performers and spectators crowded around the sets, chattering. Everyone conversed, and not in whispers.

But the constant buzz did not detract from the main event unfolding on the colorful set before us. Long-time Chabad friend and avid supporter Jon Voight stumbled to find his words and to find the right camera to face, but then he delivered a heart-felt plea for donations to support the many incredible services Chabad provides to the Los Angeles community.

Host Elon Gold made a few funnies. Dennis Prager lent his words of wisdom. Six-year-old prodigy Ethan Bortnick sang a charming tune he wrote about birds of the world, and little vest-clad Yakov Gerstner performed with astonishing passion a duet with Mordechai Ben David.

Viewers pledged close to $7.2 million to Chabad, compared to last year’s $6 million. I bet the rabbis were dancing up a storm when they tallied that figure!

— Dikla Kadosh, Contributing Writer

Scene and Heard …Ed Eisner
Outspoken activist and prolific actor Ed Asner received an Emmy nomination for his role in “The Christmas Card.” The romantic tale focuses on a U.S. soldier stationed in Afghanistan whose life changes when he receives a holiday greeting from a mysterious woman in California.

Although he did not win the Emmy on Sept. 16, during the broadcast he did join his “Roots!” castmates for a tribute to the 30th anniversary of the groundbreaking miniseries (Asner played the slave ship’s captain, Thomas Davies).

To date, Asner has won a whopping seven Emmys and five Golden Globes and is almost as well known for his political views as he is for creating the legendary role of Lou Grant on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Mazel tov!

It’s a musical world — from the bimah to the stage — and learning to chant trope may be the new Hollywood ticket. During the High Holy Days of her youth, Lizzie Weiss was a cantorial soloist divinely inspired by Jewish music. Encouraged by her mentor, Cantor Yonah Kliger, Weiss led the New Emanuel Minyan, an intimate and musical alternative service at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. This week, the Los Angeles native stars as the brainy Martha Cox in a Toronto stage production of the mega-success “High School Musical.” As reported in Canada’s Jewish Tribune, Weiss credits her Jewish roots and cantorial training for launching her professional singing career. But her newfound success comes at a price. With eight performances a week under her belt, Weiss says she’s missing leading High Holy Days services at home, but she hoped to make it to synagogue despite her rigid schedule: “This will be the first time in eight years that I won’t be on the bimah singing.”

Chabad of the Conejo celebrated a historic groundbreaking Sept. 9 — the beginning of construction for the long-anticipated New Chabad of the Conejo Community Campus on Canwood Street in Agoura Hills. They plan to build a bustling Center for Jewish Life and then demolish their current home, laying the foundation for a new synagogue that will take its place. Rabbi Moshe Bryski, the Chabad’s executive director, hopes fundraising efforts will continue while the project is under way.

“The critical thing now is for us to get the word out with greater urgency and have this campaign generate the excitement it needs and deserves,” he said in a statement. “We’ve come a long way over the past 28 years, but the greatest days for Chabad of the Conejo are yet to come.” From his mouth to God’s ears …

Margy Feldman is a gal who’s still breakin’ the glass ceiling. Honored for her achievements in business, the CEO and president of Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles was chosen as the nonprofit executive director of the year for Women in Business (WIB). The WIB Awards recognize individuals who contribute to the economic vitality of Southern California.

Theater: ‘A’ is for ‘angst’ when you’re the creators of ‘Avenue Q’

Jeff Marx, co-creator of the hit puppet musical, “Avenue Q,” was fired from his internship at “Sesame Street” in 1998. Back then he was an attorney, but he had taken the position in order to segue way into songwriting for kids. “Instead, I was cleaning tables, taking out the garbage, Xeroxing and answering telephones,” Marx says. “When I faxed an executive a song I had written, he told me that I was being too aggressive, that my job was to observe and to distribute scripts, and who they hell did I think I was? He got me the f— out of there, and I felt totally pathetic.”

Marx channeled his pathos into “Avenue Q,” which he penned with Robert Lopez, another unemployed, frustrated 20-something. The subversive musical, which opens at the Ahmanson Theatre on Sept. 7, wasn’t meant as revenge against “Sesame Street,” Marx says, but as a primer for youths who find the real world scarier than it appears on children’s TV.

The fictional Avenue Q is a dilapidated street in an outer borough of New York, where broke college graduates can afford the rent. The residents include puppets such as Princeton, a preppie searching for his “purpose” in life; Kate Monster, an assistant teacher who longs to found her own “Monstersori” school; Lucy T. Slut, a skanky chanteuse; and Trekkie Monster, the local pervert. Rod, a closeted homosexual, is in love with his slacker roommate, Nicky — a riff on all those homoerotic musings about “Sesame Street’s” Ernie and Bert.

Among the human residents is a character named Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman, of the 1980s sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes”) who “is like the patron saint of being great when you’re a kid, but sucking when you get older,” Marx says.

The musical is “how ‘Friends’ might be if it had Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy arguing about their one-night stand but with more angst, expletives and full-on puppet sex,” The Times of London said.

Marx seems light years from the fictional Avenue Q when he arrives at a La Brea cafe in his shiny black convertible. He recently moved from Manhattan to Los Angeles, and he orders his lunch like a native, asking the waiter to substitute salad for fries. When the fries come anyway, he affably shrugs and eats them all. He says he has been taking Hollywood meetings and even had breakfast with Stephen Schwartz, the composer-lyricist of “Wicked,” which “Avenue Q” beat out for best musical at the 2004 Tony Awards. He says he now has a “Bel-Air shrink” — and that he has “plenty to be neurotic about” because he is Jewish.

Marx’s love of musicals comes from his Jewish mother, a dental hygienist who routinely schlepped her four children to shows such as “The Sound of Music” and “The King and I.” “My bar mitzvah theme was ‘Hooray for Jeffrey and Hooray for Hollywood musicals,” Marx says.

By that time, he was already a professional singer, crooning ballads to blushing girls with a local music teacher’s Number One Bar Mitzvah Band. After each gig, the girls would chase Marx and ask for his autograph.

“They treated me like Elvis,” he says.

He had a very different experience in the musical theater department at the University of Michigan, where he received “only one bit part in one show, which had one line,” he says. “I had professors tell me that I had no talent and that I would never make it in theater.”

So Marx attended Yeshiva University’s law school and passed the bar, but discovered he didn’t particularly like the profession. At age 28, he found himself adrift, living in an apartment owned by his parents and interning for various shows and producers in the hopes of switching careers. He also considered becoming an entertainment lawyer, and enrolled in a musical theater workshop just to meet potential clients. It was there he discovered he had talent for songwriting and teamed up with Lopez, a Yale graduate who was still living with his parents, to write a show.

“We decided we wanted to write a musical for people our age, that even straight guys would want to see,” says Marx, who is gay. “We decided to use puppets because they don’t look cheesy when they burst into song.”

Marx and Lopez came up with a musical titled “Kermit, Prince of Denmark,” which they submitted to the Jim Henson Company. When the company passed, Marx recalls, “Bobby and I beat our heads against the wall and said, ‘Why did we spend an entire year writing for someone else’s characters? F— the f—- — Muppets, let’s create our own Muppets…. And screw trying to come up with some crazy imaginary world; let’s make it about our world.’ Everyone we knew was interning and assisting and floundering and struggling. And we thought, this is awful, but it’s also kind of funny.”

“Avenue Q’s” first two songs sum up those sentiments: “What Do You Do With a B.A. in English” and “It Sucks to Be Me.”

Marx and Lopez penned their ditties in restaurants, Starbucks, on the subway — anywhere people and surroundings could inspire them. “We wrote ‘There’s Life Outside Your Apartment,’ literally, while walking down the street,” Marx says. “Of course, we didn’t write ‘The Internet Is for Porn,’ while watching porn,” he adds. “That was in a diner over fries.”

“Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” was inspired, in part, by a relative of Marx’s who refers to African Americans as “shvartzes.” At the end of the scene, the characters argue over whether Jesus was black or white.

“But everyone laughs when they finally realize Jesus was Jewish,” Marx says.“Avenue Q” opens Sept. 7 at the Ahmanson Theatre. For tickets and information, visit http:/www.centertheatregroup.org

‘Avenue Q’ on British TV’s Newsnight Review

Chair dancing with the ‘Jersey Boys,’ Mikey Weinstein blocks prosyletizing Pentagon video game

Stars of a Different Stripe

Theirs was a classic rags-to-riches story, Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, representing the truest incarnation of the American dream: the crooked kids from the other side of town getting a break and making it big.

Big enough in fact, that my closest association with the quartet virtuoso before I saw “Jersey Boys” was the memory of singing along with the “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack. “Big Girls Don’t Cry” — that was about Baby growing up. Daddy’s little girl lured away from the ample nest by a dancer as seductive as he was penniless, who had to learn to “Walk Like a Man” to sustain her affections — but that’s another story.

This one began when Dava Savel, best known for penning the Emmy-winning coming-out episode for the TV comedy series, “Ellen,” placated her ex-husband by finally seeing his magnum opus — one night before it closed a three-month run at the Ahmanson Theatre, and we joined her for the evening.

Steve Orich, longtime orchestrator, composer and musical director working out of New York and Los Angeles, created the score for the Tony-winning musical, garnering nominations for both a Tony and Grammy award. This explains why the box office attendant said, “Wow, these are really good seats” when we picked them up at will-call.

Savel recounts the days during their 13-year marriage when they lived and breathed Broadway — she wrote Hollywood scripts and he conducted at Carnegie Hall.

Last summer, Savel re-visited Broadway with her daughter, but not for “Jersey Boys” — “Mary Poppins” was the pick of the day then. So what finally brought her ’round to see her ex-hubby’s musical sensation? “I wanted to be supportive. We’ve been through a gazillion shows, and my kids raved about it. I wanted to check it out for myself.”

The theatricals that ensued involved dancing in our seats and singing along to every song. The documentary-style musical interweaves spirited renditions of the group’s greatest hits with scenes that reflect the group’s dramatic rise to stardom. There was prison and booze and women, debts, disagreements and eventual dissolution. It’s a tale that, despite being set in the 1960s, remains relevant — although by comparison, these guys exuded charm and professionalism, while the likes of Lindsey Lohan and Britney Spears embody the anguish of excess. Ultimately, though, they’re all just people whose fast rise to fame and fortune meant home life would suffer.

Maybe the real stars are the ones who find balance. Like the award-winning television writer and the award-winning orchestrator who have found ways to amicably raise their children in harmony, while enjoying committed relationships with new partners.

“I thought he did an amazing job,” Savel said. “People think it’s the same Frankie Valli songs, but Valli probably used four instruments and Steve is orchestrating for an entire orchestra — he’s given the music new life.”

Last I saw, Savel was sitting front-row mezzanine belting “Oh What a Night!”

Scene and Heard …

Ally Maize and Alexa Block
Holy Maccabee! Two Beverly Hills teens, Ally Maize and Alexa Block took home the gold medal with the L.A. Soccer team at this year’s Maccabi Games held in Orange County. More than 2,000 Jewish teens came from around the world to sport-their-stuff at this Olympic-style event responsible for launching the careers of real Olympians Mitch Gaylord, Mark Spitz and Lenny Krayzelburg.

Fast-talking military man Mikey Weinstein successfully lobbied the Pentagon to halt delivery of a proselytizing video game, developed by Operation Straight Up, that was intended to evangelize U.S. troops stationed in the Middle East. In a JTA brief, Weinstein said, “It’s a horrible game because in it you either kill or convert the other side.”

Eleven-year-old Sarah Lang didn’t let disease derail her dream. The Speed Skating Champion was a special guest at the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America Guts and Glory 5k walk/run held at UCLA Aug. 26. She received a dual diagnosis of Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis in 2006 but finished the season in the top five of the 1000 meter race and is currently ranked eighth in the world. More than 1.4 million people in the United States are afflicted with Crohn’s, and it is particularly prevalent among Jews of Ashkenazic descent.

Sitcom superstars, sultry songstresses, literary diamonds


Bob Saget will forever be remembered as Danny Tanner from “Full House.” Now, instead of guiding the household with his wise advice and calm demeanor, Saget is exposing the sitcom family’s sexual exploits on cable television. “Bob Saget: That Ain’t Right” was taped in front of a packed audience at New York University and will debut on HBO tonight. His wildly inappropriate stand-up comedy routine covers such dirty ground as animal sex, snuff videos, prison and the personal sex lives of his former “House” mates. Although his sense of humor might make your rabbi blush, word on the street is that he is very entertaining. And a mensch.

10-11 p.m. Also, Aug. 30, Aug. 31, Sept. 4, Sept. 7, Sept. 10 and Sept. 20.


You’ve heard of Christmas in July … now you can have Chanukah in August! Grab your gelt and head to Thousand Oaks to take part in the creation of a real holiday treat cooked up by Harvey Shield, Richard Jarboe and Chayim Ben Ze’ev. “Maccabeat!” is a rockin’ musical take on the story of Judah the Maccabee and his cooler-than-thou Greek rivals. Forbidden lovers Judah and Allura force two different cultures to confront and learn from one another. A heated battle ensues and, well, you already know the rest of this tale. Hebrew hotties, Jerusalem Valley girls and a biblical boy band — it’s the Chanukkah story like you’ve never seen it before!

Part of the Thousand Oaks Festival of New Musicals, Aug. 25-26. 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. $24 (two-day pass includes admission to all four staged readings plus workshops, discussions and a festival party.) Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd. For tickets call Ticketmaster, (213) 480-3232. ” border = ‘0’ vspace = ‘8’ alt=”Sophie Millman” >

Sophie Millman’s golden blonde hair, sparkling blue eyes and delicate facial features recall the old days of Hollywood glamour. But this 24-year-old Russian Israeli Canadian beauty is no aspiring actress. She’s a jazz singer with a dark chocolate voice that’s set to take the U.S. by storm. Millman is touring New York and California in support of her new album, “Make Someone Happy,” and the predictions from jazz critics are that she’ll be making lots of music lovers very happy. Swoon to this chanteuse’s infectious crooning in “Rocket Love,” “Fever” and the particularly meaningful “Eli, Eli,” written by the Jewish Hungarian poet Hannah Senesh, who sacrificed her life to save her family from the Nazis.

8:30 p.m. $15. Catalina Jazz Club, 6725 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 466-2210. ” border = ‘0’ vspace = ‘8’ alt=”Edward Schwarzschild’ >
“The Family Diamond” is a collection of jewels. Literary gems, that is. Early reviews for Edward Schwarzschild’s second novel, comprised of nine short stories, have been sparkling: “each story is as satisfying as a full moon,” writes one author. “An achingly beautiful collection,” writes another. To see the value of the diamonds with your own eyes, visit Dutton’s tonight and meet the author, his wife and maybe the rest of his family too.

7 p.m. Free. Dutton’s Brentwood Books, 11975 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 476-6263. ” border = ‘0’ vspace = ‘8’ alt=”Dinah Berland”

If you’re a (Jewish) bookworm, this is your week! Not one, but two more book readings are taking place tonight. In Pasadena, teenybopper idol turned television director Robby Benson reads and discusses “Who Stole the Funny?” The satirical novel parodies the world of sitcoms and gives a behind-the-scenes look at the ditsy stars, meddling money-men and sexual escapades that Benson witnessed firsthand while directing more than 100 episodes of “Ellen,” “Friends,” “Dharma & Greg” and other hit shows. Back at Dutton’s, Dinah Berland covers a very different Jewish topic: prayers. She’ll be signing “Hours of Devotion: Fanny Neuda’s Book of Prayers for Jewish Women,” a restoration of a cherished 19th century prayer book.

Benson: 7 p.m. Free. Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. ” border = ‘0’ vspace = ‘8’ alt=”Clare Burson” >

Awarded one of 12 Six Points Fellowships for Emerging Jewish Artists in April, Tennessee native Clare Burson is hard at work on “Invisible Ink,” a 10-song album of original Jewish music infused with Southern Americana. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t diligently promoting her recent release “Thieves,” which showcases her warm voice and songwriting talents. She’ll be hitting up all the big towns, including ours, this summer and fall.

8 p.m. $8. Tangiers, 2138 Hillhurst Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 666-8666.


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.