Coming of age in midlife


The main character in the play “The Bells of West 87th” undergoes what could be considered a coming-of-age crisis, albeit much later in life than is usual. Mollie Fein (Cameron Meyer) is awkward, unmarried, unfashionable, approaching 40 and trapped in the midst of her hilariously dysfunctional Jewish family. She has taken over from her parents, who separated four-and-a-half years ago, as the manager of an apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Mollie’s father, Eli (Robert Towers), remained in Apt. 3E, while his wife, Ida (Carol Locatell), moved into Mollie’s apartment, 3D, right next door. Eli thinks Ida is living on Staten Island with their other daughter, the pretty, happily married Maxine (Dagney Kerr), Mollie’s sibling rival. To maintain this subterfuge and to keep track of her husband, Ida had Mollie install bells with different ring tones on every door and window of Eli’s apartment — hence the play’s title — so that she would always know what he was doing and could avoid running into him in the hallway.

“Believe it or not, a friend’s family sparked the story,” playwright Elin Hampton explained. “I have a friend in New York, and she had told me this story about her parents, and about the way her mother was keeping track of her father with bells, and I thought it was hilarious. And I said, ‘Can I use that?’ She said, ‘Yep, all yours. So, go for it.’ ”

The action gets into gear when Mollie reveals that she has been taking a poetry class, where she met Chris (James Marsters), a man with whom she plans a romantic future. She has invited him to dinner and is slowly letting her parents know that she doesn’t want to continue being an apartment manager, that she wants more out of life, that she’s fallen in love with someone who loves her, and that she might be moving in with him.

“So, when the play starts, and she lets all that be known,” Hampton said, “there’s a tug of war, and her passive-aggressive parents don’t want her to leave. They love her; they hate her; they don’t think much of her; but they’re dependent upon her.” 

She, in turn, needs their love and approval, Meyer observed, adding, “She’s a very morally upright person and wanted to help with the family business and take care of them as they were aging, and, eventually, she figures out that she has to take care of herself, too, like we all do.”

Meyer, who stepped into the role at virtually the last minute when Juliet Landau had to leave the production, is not Jewish, but said she’s had a lot of exposure to Jewish life.

“My parents and I had a lot of close Jewish friends, and in college and since then I’ve had close Jewish friends. My husband’s family is Jewish. 

“I’m just doing the best I can to understand where this character’s coming from and relate to her on a universal level,” she said.

Meyer also said that the role of Mollie, besides being a very funny part, has great rhythms and timing. She views the character as a strong person, even though other characters think she’s a loser.

“I don’t think she is,” Meyer said. “She spent a lot of years taking care of everyone else and never had that chance to take care of her own needs and her own desires, and everyone has to have that chance. Most people do that when they’re in their teens or 20s, and she has to finally do that.”

But she doesn’t do it with Chris, the man she envisioned as her knight in shining armor who would take her away from her crazy family. Chris actually fits in with her parents and is perfectly happy to encourage Ida’s burgeoning brooch-making business and Eli’s ambitions as a magician.

Marsters described Chris as a loving, pure, happy soul who turns out to be of very little use to Mollie. “Chris lost his parents when he was young. They were religious fundamentalists who got drowned while being baptized. 

“To him, anyone with parents is lucky. It doesn’t matter how healthy or unhealthy they could be. Anyone with parents that are breathing is lucky.”

The actor said that, conversely, Mollie’s parents, especially her mother, need acute attention. “I think, for Chris, to be needed by a mother figure is filling a hole, and so he’s quite happy to step into the role that Mollie, ultimately, happily, escapes from.”

Marsters and playwright Hampton are both alumni of the TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Marsters said that he was drawn to Hampton’s current project largely because of his admiration for her, citing what he called her ability to combine humor with pathos.

Hampton, who was raised in Conservative Judaism and continues to be somewhat observant, thought her play would appeal primarily to Jewish audiences, until she held readings prior to this world premiere production.

“I had people in the audience who were African-American and Italian and Asian saying, ‘This is my family,’ which really surprised me. So I think there are other ethnic groups that have close-knit families, and I think it is relevant to all these families. 

“I grew up with Neil Simon and Wendy Wasserstein, and they were my idols. They were the people that I think inspired me as a playwright, so, in my head, it was very much a Jewish-themed play, but, like I say, surprisingly, everybody seemed to find it relevant to their lives, no matter who they are.”

As Ida says in the play, “Normal is what people call families that aren’t theirs.”

“The Bells of West 87th” Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A. 90036. Sat., Sept. 7 – Sun., Oct. 13. Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 6 p.m.

Tickets: (323) 655-7679, ext. 100 or boxoffice@greenwayarts.org

Calendar: Itzhak Perlman, Honey Bee Day, Avi Buffalo, ‘The Diary’ and more


SAT | AUG 17

NATIONAL HONEY BEE DAY

With Rosh Hashanah just around the corner, let us pay tribute to the busy bees that have long contributed to our delicious New Year’s tradition. HoneyLove, an urban beekeeper group, celebrates honeybees with the 2013 theme “Beekeeping — Ask Me How to Get Started.” Who knows, maybe you’ll be making your own honey in 5774. Waggle Dance flash mob at 2 p.m. (practice video online). Sat. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Free. LUSH, 1404 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica. (424) 625-8233. ” target=”_blank”>coeurage.org.  


MON | AUG 19

“DREAD IN THE LITERATURE OF THE ANONYMOUS”

Josh Shachar discusses and signs his new book. A resident of Los Angeles and Caesarea, Israel, Shachar makes sure his characters are never all in one place, either. Following three separate journeys — an Algerian immigrant, a woman of broken faith and a watchmaker imprisoned in a labor camp — Shachar reveals that however different our journeys are, we do all journey. Mon. 7 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. TUE | AUG 20

ITZHAK PERLMAN

” target=”_blank”>hollywoodbowl.com.

“DON’T LET DESTINY CONTROL YOUR FUTURE”

In case you were planning to, don’t! Rabbi Lawrence Keleman offers an inspiring lecture on taking the reins and showing destiny the door. A Harvard-educated professor of modern and medieval philosophy at Neve Yerushalayim, the Jerusalem College for Jewish Women’s Studies, Keleman is just the man to introduce you to your future. Tue. 7:30 p.m. (reception and hors d’oeuvres), 8:15 p.m. (lecture). $7 (advance), $10 (door).Nessah Synagogue, 142 S. Rexford Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 273-2400. THU | AUG 22

COMMUNITY CELEBRATION CONCERT

Perhaps the only thing just as timeless as family is music. Join the Schoenberg family as they celebrate the bar mitzvah of one of their younger members by honoring two of their oldest. Both hailing from Austria, Arnold Schoenberg and Eric Zeisl spent their lives composing music and contributing to a deserved Jewish place in its history. Conductor Nick Strimple and the Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale, along with organist Iain Farrington, will bring some of those important liturgical works to life. Reception follows. Thu. 7 p.m. Free. RSVP required. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 409-2033. ” target=”_blank”>thesmell.org.

MARIA MULDAUR AND THE CAMPBELL BROTHERS

It’s a bluesy, funky, gospel kind of night. With vocals from Grammy-winning Muldaur (best known for “Midnight at the Oasis”) and the impressive all-around musicianship from a family of Campbells, the Skirball offers up a world-premiere collaboration. If your foot isn’t tapping, we don’t want to hear about it. Thu. 8 p.m. Free. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. ” target=”_blank”>toaks.org/cap

The mishegoss of mom, shmaltz-free


Anybody who has trod the boards knows that little blitz of stage fright that can flood through an actor when a member of the family is in the audience.

Jane Press, author and star of the play “My Mother’s Keeper,” has long since dispensed with any such anticipation. Her mother, Della, attended the play’s world premiere last year at the Carl Cherry Center for the Arts in Carmel, Calif., and — at age 83 — will make the journey south to see its L.A. premiere at the Electric Lodge in Venice this weekend. Press’ daughter, Monica Steiner, also saw the play in Carmel, mere weeks before giving birth to the playwright’s first grandchild, Colin Steiner. 

But even when she doesn’t have kin in the seats, Press spends her evenings at the theater surrounded by family. “My Mother’s Keeper” is a memory play about four generations of the author’s family, from her great-grandmother all the way down to Press, who is a character in the play both as her adult self and — played by a different actress — as 11-year-old Janie. 

“The interesting thing is that, as we go along in rehearsals, I see my grandmother and my mother coming through. The actors start to channel them,” Press said. “At one point, I play my great-grandmother and she comes through me. It’s a very interesting experience. I keep saying to the director, ‘The angels are circling.’ ”

Perhaps, but they’re not always particularly angelic.

While Press can talk about the mishegoss with which all colorful families — Jewish or otherwise — must deal, “My Mother’s Keeper” presents the “mish” (as Press calls it) as both funny and quite painful. The play spans nearly 100 years, jumping between the early 1900s and the present day. An event from 1914 involving Press’ great-grandmother Lina Moscowitz sets off a cycle of damage and dysfunction that will filter down through subsequent generations. Press says she wrote the work — the first she has written after decades of acting — in part to “break the chain.”

“A major theme of the play is the blessings and curses that are inherent and inherited from, in this case, mother to child,” Press said. “I specifically looked at the mother-daughter dynamic, which is just as specific as the father-son dynamic. However, everyone has or had a mother. That’s what makes this play universal.”

If “My Mother’s Keeper” is our guide, then Press’ own dame was a piece of work. The opening monologue finds Press making reference to the abusive relationship between Joan and Christina Crawford alleged in the memoir “Mommie Dearest.” As depicted in the play, Della is selfish, controlling, hard-hearted and physically abusive to her children, who call her “the police woman.”

During an interview, when she speaks of her mother — Della Press, née Thelma Colodny — Jane calls her “Della” more often than “Ma.” Even so, things have changed. 

“She’s mellowed a lot. She’s a real doll now,” Press said of Della. “I’m the only one of her four children who speaks to her or who has any relationship with her. Old age is a great leveler, and when your children become adults and won’t have anything to do with you, I think that got her attention.” 

That understanding between mother and daughter was hard won. For Press, breaking the chain took years of therapy and recovery through 12-step programs. 

“We are so fortunate to have such wonderful tools available to us,” she said. “I finally felt strong enough to be able to address the issues I wanted to share. And I wanted to give voice to this whole generation of women that are being portrayed in ways that I think can be deeper, stronger, more accurate and funnier.”

Ah, yes, funny. 

For all its emotional thorniness, “My Mother’s Keeper” is intended to provoke guffaws and tears in equal measure. Press’ Grandma Ida and her cadre of mah jongg-playing Brooklyn bubbes are built for laughs, but they are depicted exactly how the then-adolescent Jane Press remembers them. Ida Colodny — the funniest of them all — was the equivalent of a stand-up comedian, a woman constantly enlisted to tell jokes at large social and family gatherings. In fact, one of the props used in the play is a plastic bag filled with punch lines that actually belonged to Colodny. The actress who plays Ida rummages through it and gives young Janie — and the audience — a sampling of the now-legendary Ida wit. 

“She was very beloved in Brooklyn,” Press said. “In those days, before TV, they had large gatherings in all our houses. We have a black-and-white picture somewhere of people dressed up all around these big round tables and they’re all turned toward the camera and smiling, and there are cigarettes and ashtrays and cigars, and everybody’s having a great time. They used to have big get-togethers, big luncheons and dinners, and my grandmother was the entertainment.”

The play depicts the tender and very close relationship shared between 11-year-old Jane and Grandma Ida, but director Robin McKee, who has been with “My Mother’s Keeper” since its inception, insists that the play is shmaltz-free.

“I don’t like sentimentality,” said McKee, who is not Jewish. “Whatever kind of sentimental stuff was in there, we’ve been able to weed out. I think I helped bring a sort of concept to it. It was a beautiful series of memories and scenes. By reordering scenes and connecting ideas, we were able to find a shape to the piece that leads to an emotional truth.”

During the play’s Carmel run, Press and McKee heard from numerous audience members who insisted that the exploits of the Moscowitz and Colodny clan closely mirrored the “mish” of their own families. And these comments came from families who were Irish, Asian and Indian. The humor may be Jewish, but the experience of being part of a big, crazy family is universal, McKee said.

Press, who lives in Monterey, hopes to take the play to New York eventually. They have sent “My Mother’s Keeper” to Tyne Daly in the hopes of interesting her in the role of Grandma Ida. 

As for the L.A. run, which will last through June 16, the timing — and particularly the opening — is by no means coincidental.

“We have two shows on Mother’s Day, and it’s the perfect Mother’s Day experience,” Press said. “But I don’t recommend it for children under the age of 9.”

 

“My Mother’s Keeper” plays Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. Sun., May 12: 3 p.m., 8 p.m. Through June 16. Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice. $28. (310) 306-1854. electriclodge.org

Humor thrives in ‘Divorce Party: The Musical’


Divorce can be a devastating experience, but one can get through it, survive and even thrive, according to Amy Botwinick, co-author of “Divorce Party: The Musical,” currently running at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood. 

The story centers on Linda (Janna Cardia), whose marriage ended when her husband came out of the closet and left her for another man. Linda is wallowing in misery and devouring Chubby Hubby ice cream. Enter her sister (Mary Jayne Waddell), her cousin (Samara Dunn) and her friend (Soara-Joye Ross), who have come to throw her a divorce party and lift her spirits. By the show’s end, Linda has been transformed, physically and emotionally, and is living a full life.

Botwinick, a former chiropractor, went through her own traumatic divorce some 12 years ago. She went on to become a divorce coach, helping other women get through their breakups. After five years of coaching, Botwinick wanted to do more, and the idea for a play came to her as an outgrowth of her therapy.

“My divorce took three years, and I remember going to my therapist, and she said, ‘You’re killing me. I don’t know what to do with you.’ She suggested that I start journaling my thoughts down on paper. I started writing my heart out, and the first thing was a book, ‘Congratulations on Your Divorce.’ That book was a little piece of me, but I interviewed a lot of other men and women, and I said, ‘Please tell me how you made it through this, because I need help.’ And they shared their stories of love, of loss, of why they stayed together, why they chose to leave, and what their lives looked like.

“I think the play was just me writing about what I learned from all these women that I coached, what I learned about myself and how you put your big-girl pants on and start over again.”

Botwinick had never actually written a play, so when she discovered that Tony Award-winning Broadway producer Mark Schwartz was at an event she was attending in Palm Beach, Fla., she introduced herself to him and said she had written a book on divorce and felt the subject would lend itself to a musical. As it happened, Schwartz, who had produced the off-Broadway hit “Menopause: The Musical” and was trying to decide what subject to tackle next, was thinking along the same line. The two ultimately got together and began to collaborate, with Schwartz guiding Botwinick in structuring a script and writing dialogue. He also brought in Jay Falzone to work with them on the book, direct the production and create lyrics that parodied popular tunes, a device modeled on the musical numbers in “Menopause.”

After honing the material for a few years, they premiered the play last January in West Palm Beach, Fla., breaking every box office record for the last 20 years. There was also a production in Toronto, which Schwartz said sold more than 20,000 tickets. 

The producer, who has divorced twice, is quick to emphasize that the show is not just aimed at divorced people. “This is really, really important. It doesn’t matter if you’re single, married or divorced, this is one funny, funny time at the theater. Everybody knows someone who’s been through a divorce, or is going through a divorce. It’s a very normal part of our lives.” 

Although the play unfolds from a woman’s point of view, the show includes about nine “boy toy” characters, all played by actor Scott Ahearn.

“It’s a tour-de-force performance,” Schwartz remarked, “and the audience loves him at the end. But h interacts with the women only as a third person. He’s not their friend; he doesn’t know them. He’s a pizza delivery boy; he’s a massage therapist; he’s a yoga master; he’s a makeover artist. He comes back in different guises.”

Although it is not a specifically Jewish play, Botwinick, who now lives in Florida and is remarried to “a nice Jewish attorney,” said her approach was heavily influenced by the values she learned as a Jewish girl from New Jersey. 

“Growing up as a Jewish girl with this idea of always trying to be the bigger person, always trying to do the best you can, not being mean or vicious, a lot of that is in there, because a lot of people go through difficult times and they lash out, or they go for revenge. I just think about how I grew up, what I learned in Hebrew School and my bat mitzvah, about always giving back, whether it’s to your friends or your family, and just trying to be supportive and helpful.

“Things get hard,” she continued. “We always have hard times as Jews, right? We always have issues, but what do we do? We always pick ourselves up, and we move on, and we move on with a good heart, and with humor. Humor is everything.”

“Divorce Party: The Musical” runs until April 14 at the El Portal Theatre. For tickets or more information, call (866) 811-4111 or visit 

www.elportaltheatre.com.

 

Calendar Picks and Clicks: Dec. 15-21, 2012


SAT DEC 15

“Voices and Visions” 

Connecting Jewish thought, art and people, this exhibition at the Skirball features artworks that pair contemporary Jewish artists with past and present Jewish thinkers, including Hillel, Maimonides and Susan Sontag. The project aims to inspire reflection, conversation and a deeper connection to Jewish values, as renowned artists and designers Milton Glaser, Arnold Schwartzman, Carin Goldberg and others interpret and graphically transform the words of Jewish luminaries into striking images. Through March 17. Sat. $10 (general), $7 (seniors, full-time students), $5 (children 2-12). Free. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. skirball.org.

 

SUN DEC 16

“El Idish”

Celebrate Yiddish culture in Argentina with an afternoon of film, song, dance and food. The festivities include music by the Modern Yiddish Tango Trio and clarinetist Gustavo Bulgach, a tango demonstration by Karen Goodman, Chanukah empanadas and Argentine wine. Miri Koral, CEO at the California Institute for Yiddish Culture and Language (CIYCL), introduces “Sowing Wheat — Reaping Doctors,” a multimedia presentation. The event kicks off the CIYCL’s 2012-2013 series on contemporary Yiddish culture. Sun. 4 p.m. $12 (general), $10 (CIYCL and Santa Monica Synagogue members), $5 (students). Santa Monica Synagogue, 1448 18th St., Santa Monica. (310) 745-1190. yiddishinstitute.org.

Chanukah Music Festival

The City of West Hollywood hosts a Chanukah Music Festival at Plummer Park featuring Kol Sephardic Choir and Flamenco Dancers. Including singers from Los Angeles and Orange counties, Kol Sephardic Choir will perform a repertoire consisting of Sephardic Romanceros sung in Ladino and liturgical/religious songs in Hebrew with Sephardic melodies. Sun. 4-5:30 p.m. Free (guests will receive a CD with $20 donation). Plummer Park, Fiesta Hall, 7377 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 557-1096. kolsephardicchoir.com.

“Kosher Lust” 

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, television and radio host and author of the international best-seller “Kosher Sex,” opines on one of his favorite topics: relationships. Appearing at the West Coast Torah Center, he examines the importance of building marriage on covetousness, rather than romance. Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, director of Jewlicious Festivals, moderates. Sun. 7 p.m. $10. West Coast Torah Center, 322 N. Foothill Road, Beverly Hills. (310) 277-5544. jconnectla.com.

 

TUE DEC 18

“The Rabbi’s Cat”

Set in 1930s Algiers, this animated adaptation of the beloved series by French comic-book artist Joann Sfar tells the story of a widowed rabbi, his beautiful daughter and a cat that swallows the family parrot and gains the ability to speak. Philosophical, skeptical and lustful, the cat insists he wants a bar mitzvah and, joined by the rabbi, embarks on a journey in search of Jerusalem. Sfar co-directs. French animated feature “The Painting” as well as short films “Dripped” and “Tram” also screen. Sun. 8 p.m. $13 (general), $11 (students). Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica. (310) 260-1528. americancinemathequecalendar.com.

 

THU DEC 20

OU West Coast Torah Convention

The Orthodox Union’s (OU) West Coast 22nd annual Torah Convention explores “The Quest for Spirituality.” Tonight, Rabbi Jacob Schacter of Yeshiva University delivers the keynote address, “The Quest for Spirituality — Timeless Challenge: Contemporary Solutions,” followed by a panel discussion featuring Rabbi Meyer May, executive director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and David Suissa, president of TRIBE Media Corp/Jewish Journal. Other events include scholars-in-residence at OU-member synagogues on Shabbat morning, a Shabbat luncheon at Pat’s, and the Dr. Beth Samuels Memorial Lectures on Sunday, featuring Rebbetzin Yael Weil and Rebbetzin Aviva Tessler. Thu. Through Dec. 23. Various times and locations. ou.org/synagogue_services/westcoast

 

FRI DEC 21

“The Guilt Trip” 

An inventor (Seth Rogen) hits the road with his mother (Barbra Streisand) on a quest to sell his latest invention. “The Guilt Trip” is based on a real trip screenwriter Dan Fogelman took with his mother. Co-stars include Adam Scott, Colin Hanks and Brett Cullen. Fri. Various times, prices and locations. guilttripmovie.com.

My Jerusalem 

Blending nice Jewish boy Jeff Klein’s upbringing with his inclination for bruised rock anthems, Austin, Texas-based quintet My Jerusalem recently released its sophomore album, “Preachers,” which songwriter Klein describes as “post-modern Southern gothic soul.” Appearing at Hollywood venue the Fonda Theatre, My Jerusalem opens tonight for L.A. punk rockers X during the famed group’s “X-mas 2012.” Fri. 9 p.m. $32. Fonda Theatre, 6126 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 464-6269. fondatheatre.com

Observant life in progress


Barbara Heller likes to refer to herself as a “growing Jew.” 

The actress/singer has created a biographical show, “Finding Barb,” that traces her life from her dysfunctional family in Boca Raton, Fla., through her disappointing pursuit of an acting career in New York, to her indoctrination into Orthodox Judaism and, finally, to her present state of trying to balance her commitment to an observant life with her professional ambitions.

The play is running currently at Working Stage in West Hollywood, with performances continuing through Jan. 10.

The seeds of Heller’s quest seem to be rooted in the upheaval of her early home life. While her parents are caricatured in her play, she said the conflict between them was real.

“There was a lot of fighting in the house, not between me and my sister, but between my parents. 

“They both had their issues, and they both were really honest about it. Unfortunately, they shared everything with us, like their problems. But, on the other hand, nothing was hidden. I don’t know. I guess I got to see too much.”

Complicating matters, Heller remarked, was the feeling that she never fit any of the “boxes” into which she wanted to fit — she was never part of the “cool” group in elementary school, for example. She said it got better in high school, where she loved the extracurricular acting, singing and dancing activities and appeared in school productions.

Heller recalled that she was 13 when she decided she wanted acting to be her life’s work. She was in New York visiting her aunt, who was a lawyer.

“I looked at all the books in her office, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is so boring.’ And I looked at the cover of Time magazine. Jim Henson had just passed away, and I sat in her law library … and I just sobbed. I said, ‘I feel so much more connected to Jim Henson than to any of these books and being a lawyer.’ I remember that moment. I made a decision.  I said, ‘I have to be an actor.’ And that was it.” 

Heller attended Tisch School of the Arts at New York University but couldn’t finish because her parents were going through a messy divorce and didn’t have the money for her to continue there. Instead, she graduated from the University of Florida, in Gainesville, with a major in theater and returned to New York to try for acting roles. 

Although she did cabaret work, toured in an off-Broadway production, auditioned for numerous Broadway shows and got called back many times, she never actually landed a role on Broadway. She started to think about quitting. 

Then she was invited to a Shabbat dinner at the Upper West Side apartment of a friend she had met a few years earlier, when they visited eight concentration camps and Israel under the sponsorship of the World Zionist Organization.

That night, there was a security she had never previously enjoyed, certainly not when she was living with her parents. 

“I had no structure growing up,” she said. “So, to have even one dinner a week where everyone was loving and happy and there together, and there was good food on the table and we could have guests over — just the idea of having a wholesome, intimate Shabbat dinner that was loving was precious to me. I’d never had that before.

“I bought a dream that night.” 

She also met a couple there who suggested she attend a retreat in Orlando, which was being run by Isralight, an organization dedicated to “Inspiring a Renaissance in Jewish Living” through educational programs.

“I decided that weekend that I should go to Israel and study the Torah in the original text instead of the critical texts I had studied in college,” Heller said. “I stayed there for almost two years [off and on] learning in yeshivot.” 

She then steeped herself in Orthodoxy and endured years of match-made dating that is portrayed in her show as hilariously disastrous. 

But, for her, the woman’s role in Judaism does have a certain beauty. 

“I started to get really curious about what it means to be a Jewish woman,” she said. “What are the laws that I can embrace? I love the idea of niddah; I love the idea of a woman going to mikveh and praying, and being immersed in that water,” she said. 

During the period of her extreme Orthodox life, Heller spent some 10 years singing and performing exclusively for female audiences. She explained that it’s a very strict halachah for an observant woman to perform only for other women. But, ultimately, that limitation wasn’t fulfilling, and her current show is a way of reintroducing herself to more mainstream, integrated audiences.

As for dating, Heller said, as an observant woman, she didn’t touch men for six years. Still, she didn’t get married in the time frame that the rabbi said she would find a husband.

“I only dated observant men for nine, 10 years, and then I realized I’m not finding the right person for me. Maybe that’s because I’m not supposed to be fully observant in this very strict way. So, I started dating people who are not as religious, and I’m much happier, because I don’t really fit in the box of an Orthodox Jew.” 

At this point in her life, Heller said she considers herself “a growing Jew,” or “limmudnik.”

Limmud actually means ‘to learn’ or ‘learning,’ and I’m a learning Jew; I’m a growing Jew. I also teach Judaism. That’s part of what I do as a job. I teach Jewish students on the weekends at different synagogues and in their homes,” she said. “I teach Judaism, and I also run a theater camp for Jewish kids where there’s, partially, Jewish learning and theater studies as well.”

Heller concluded that her play is about finding a box that works for her, or taking pieces of different boxes and putting them together in a creative way.

“Finding Barb”

The Working Stage
1516 N. Gardner, Los Angeles 90046 (five blocks east of Fairfax)
(323) 521-8600
Thursdays through Jan. 10, 2013, 8 p.m.
No performance the weeks of Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s Eve
Tickets $25.00
Reservations: FindingBarbShow.Eventbrite.com/

Calendar Picks and Clicks: Oct. 27–Nov 2, 2012


SAT OCT 27

“Seeds of Resiliency”

Documentarian Susan Polis Schutz’s new film introduces us to 12 diverse people who have survived tragedies and challenges by having hope and helping others, including a Holocaust survivor who believes that “the worst can bring out the best in us,” a man who escaped war-torn Uganda and now assists other refugees, and a Korean professor who became a quadriplegic but does not consider himself unfortunate. Sat. Various times. $5. Laemmle’s Music Hall 3, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Laemmle’s Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (310) 478-3836. laemmle.com.

SUN OCT 28

“Midrashic Mirrors”

An art exhibition and panel discussion marks the completion of “Midrashic Mirrors: Creating Holiness in Imagery and Intimacy,” a book project developed by a group of female artists and writers at Temple Israel of Hollywood, which illustrates how the creative process animates the nexus between Torah and our personal lives. A wine, cheese and dessert reception kicks off the festivities, followed by a walk-through of the installation. Afterward, Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh facilitates a discussion with the project’s authors and artists. The event concludes with a first-edition book signing and sale, with proceeds benefiting Temple Israel’s education scholarships. Sun. 3-6 p.m. Free. Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 876-8330. tioh.org.

Propositions Party

Are you confused about the propositions? Temple Kol Tikvah holds a nonpartisan forum for California voters to learn about of the issues on the Nov. 6 ballot. Speakers present the pro and con positions on all 11 of the state propositions, which include tax initiatives to fund schools, labeling of genetically modified food, three-strikes reform, an end to the death penalty and increased penalties for human trafficking. Sun. 3-6 p.m. Free. Temple Kol Tikvah, 20400 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 348-0670. koltikvah.org.

“Unbroken Spirit”

Former Soviet refusenik Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich, who at the age of 22 attempted to hijack a plane to the West to raise awareness about the desperate plight of Soviet Jews, discusses and signs the newly released English translation of his memoir, “Unbroken Spirit: A Heroic Story of Faith, Courage, and Survival.” Sun. 7 p.m. Free (reservations required). Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 553-8403. museumoftolerance.com/unbrokenspirit.

MON OCT 29

“Jewish Values and the 2012 Ballot”

IKAR’s Rabbi Sharon Brous and Rabbi Ronit Tsadok, American Jewish University’s Rabbi Aryeh Cohen and leaders of social justice organization Bend the Arc discuss the November ballot initiatives through a Jewish lens, addressing what Jewish tradition says about the death penalty, criminal justice and income equality. Mon. 7:30 p.m. Free. Westside JCC, 5870 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 634-1870, (323) 761-8350. ikar-la.org, bendthearc.us/events.

TUE OCT 30

Israel Philharmonic Orchestra

Conductor Zubin Mehta leads the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 3, Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Brahms’ Symphony
No. 1. Pianist Yuja Wang also appears. Tue. 8 p.m. $47-$156. Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 850-2000. laphil.com.

THU NOV 1

“Rita in Concert: A Celebration of My Roots”

Israel’s diva reconnects with her Iranian roots and brings a world-music experience to UCLA as part of her U.S. tour. Rita performs selections from her latest album, “My Joys,” which features contemporary renditions of classic Iranian songs, blending Tel Aviv-inspired club music, pop and gypsy sounds with Farsi lyrics. Sponsored by the Iranian American Jewish Federation. Thu. 7:30 p.m. $35-$200. UCLA campus, Royce Hall, 240 Royce Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 825-2101. cap.ucla.edu

Pete Wilson and Gray Davis

Former Govs. Wilson and Davis discuss Propositions 30 and 38, initiatives on the November election ballots that promise to raise additional money for K-12 education and community colleges. Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles and Journal columnist, moderates. Thu. 7:30 p.m. Free. Stephen S. Wise Temple, 15500 Stephen S. Wise Drive, Los Angeles. wisela.org.

FRI NOV 2

2012 Kindertransport Association Conference

The Kindertransport Association, a nonprofit that unites children Holocaust refugees of the Kindertransport rescue movement with their descendants, hosts “Generation to Generation: Honoring the Legacy, Transforming the Future,” a three-day biennial international gathering. Workshops and speakers explore the legacy of the Kindertransports, a rescue movement that took place on the eve of World War II and saved nearly 10,000 German, Austrian and Czech children. Fri. 7 p.m. Through Nov. 4. $330 (Kindertransport Association members), $370 (general). Includes two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners, programs and complimentary shuttle from John Wayne International Airport. Hotel registration: $99 per night (single or double occupancy). Irvine Marriott Hotel, 18000 Van Karman Ave., Irvine. (516) 938-6084. kindertransport.org

Rescuing Jewish Musicians


When Zubin Mehta takes the stage at the Disney Concert Hall on Oct. 30 to conduct the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), most in the audience will know that they’re hearing a world-class orchestra. Very few will realize, however, that the IPO’s founding was integral to the origins of the modern Jewish state. That beginning not only inaugurated the arts in Israel, but it was coupled with the saving of untold numbers of Jews from the Holocaust. Now that story is being told on the big screen in director Josh Aronson’s “Orchestra of Exiles,” in first-run screenings at selected Laemmle theaters beginning Nov. 2.

It’s the story of Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947), a poor Polish Jew who rose to become one of Europe’s leading concert violinists of the early 20th century. As German orchestras began expelling their Jewish members, he had the vision to see the coming Holocaust. He fought the rampant European Jew hatred of the 1930s and ’40s with his greatest weapon: his violin. Huberman then leveraged his rock-star status to attract star Jewish soloists to join him in building a great symphony orchestra in Palestine. In so doing, he arranged for the safe exit of at least 1,000 Jews.

While Aronson has directed fictional screenplays, the 60-year-old filmmaker’s medium of choice is documentary filmmaking. His resume includes “Sound and Fury” (2000), “Beautiful Daughters” (2006) and “Bullrider” (2006). And as a documentarian, he’s used to being buttonholed about a subject.

“Everybody comes to you with the greatest story that’s never been told,” he says with a degree of weariness from his home in New York City. “But a friend of mine was going to Vienna to play with violinist Joshua Bell, to honor this long-dead violinist, Huberman. I’ve been a pianist since I was 5 years old, and my wife, Maria Bachmann, is a concert violinist, so I know classical music. But I didn’t know about Bronislaw Huberman.”

“When I heard who Huberman was and what he did,” Aronson enthuses, clearly energized by the memory, “I got it: one of the most renowned concert violinists of his time, who saved the essence of Jewish European culture from the Nazis and brought it to Palestine. I immediately knew I had to make this movie. How could I not tell this story?”

Aronson grew up in St. Louis. “My family came from Vilnius and Romania,” he says, “before World War I. So there are no Holocaust stories in my family. I’d never much looked into it before I started this project, but because of Huberman’s story, I knew it was time.”

“Orchestra of Exiles” features vibrant on-screen testimony from Mehta (whose history with the IPO stretches 50 years), violinists Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Bell. There is no film of Huberman, so historic photographs, newspapers and artifacts supply a sense of the time. Aronson also staged scenes with actors, shot in muted colors and soft-focus. He uses written passages — from Huberman, Adolf Hitler and Arturo Toscanini — to provide effective voice-overs.

Alongside Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, Huberman was part of the post-World War I Pan-European movement. A utopian precursor to the European Union that was rendered irrelevant by World War II, its adherents thought it would inoculate Europe from war.

“Huberman was not a religious Jew,” Aronson surmises, “that I know of.” Does he make anything of the fact that all three were nonreligious Jews? “I don’t know,” Aronson ponders, “except to say that Jews have hearts; Jews care, and Jews have often known the horrors of war in ways that other people haven’t. I know Huberman spoke very passionately for Pan-Europeanism at his concerts.”

The movie contains some picturesque on-camera descriptions by Perlman, Zukerman and Bell of Huberman’s violin playing. Aronson clarifies: “Heifetz and Paganini were known for their very precise work; Huberman’s style was very different. He was much rougher — very emotional, very passionate and given to playing wrong notes now and then. But he didn’t care. There are recordings of him from the 1930s, but they’re not of good quality, so we really can’t know what the experience of hearing him was like. I suppose Nigel Kennedy would be the closest present-day violinist to Huberman.”

When Hitler assumed power in 1933, German Jews saw their freedom and work activities slowly constricting. German symphonies began to pink slip Jewish musicians, despite the fact that they were often their prize soloists. Third Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels knew the value of showing a benign treatment of Jews to the larger world. When a group of unemployed Jewish actors formed their own theater company, Goebbels loudly trumpeted it as an example of Nazi benevolence. Huberman wasn’t fooled, and he turned down offers to perform in Germany, including a personal plea from Hitler.

The Zionist movement was taking hold in Palestine, and it resonated with Huberman. Like Einstein, Huberman saw the gathering dark clouds in Europe and realized the need for a Jewish homeland. He began putting out a call to out-of-work Jewish musicians and held blind auditions in order to attract the absolute best players. Huberman was able to arrange for many safe passages to Palestine for musicians and even their family members. He moved Jews out of Europe up until 1939.

“There are no records,” Aronson says, “so we don’t know how many people Huberman was personally responsible for. At the very least it was 300, but it may have been as many as 3,000.”

Helgard Field (whose husband, Irwin Field, is a former publisher of the Jewish Journal and serves on the board) is on the national board of the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (AFIPO) and is a member of the West Coast Chairmen’s Council of AFIPO. The AFIPO officially began in the 1980s as a support organization. “I heard that Zubin Mehta was conducting the orchestra in Buckingham Palace about 18 years ago, and I thought it was ironic that the concert was taking place right down the hall from where so many people who wanted to destroy Israel so many years ago had gathered,” Helgard Field says.

“This orchestra,” she points out, “was made up of specialists and soloists. It rose like a phoenix up out of the ashes of Europe. It now has musicians who are third-generation IPO members. And this documentary is a fascinating and vital document of what happened in Europe. It’s extremely important that young people everywhere see it.”

Making documentaries is a long-distance runner’s job. It’s not uncommon for biographers and documentarians to so thoroughly dissect their subjects that they lose all affection they once had for them. So, after completing the movie, how does Aronson ultimately feel about Huberman, the man? Pausing a moment to consider, he replies: “He had a lot of eccentricities, the way great artists do. And I already knew a fair amount of negatives about him; he didn’t really father his own son. But that’s a common theme with famous men. I ended up liking him for his dedication. He gave up half of his income when Hitler came to power by refusing to perform in Germany; a lot of great musicians stayed where they were, earning comfortable livings. For a while, anyway. …

“He’d seen real pogroms in Poland as a boy. And out of the anti-Semitism all around him, he saw an opportunity to build something great with, apparently, no interest in any personal accolades or publicity whatsoever. He was so famous by his 40s that I don’t think he cared at all about fame anymore. It’s just impossible that he didn’t see what he was doing as a mission of mercy.”

 

The film will screen locally at four Laemmle theaters: Music Hall in Beverly Hills, Town Center 5 in Encino, Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, and Claremont 5 in Claremont.

A playwright’s work wrestles with doing the right thing


The situation created by writer David Gow in his two-character play, “Cherry Docs,” is virtually guaranteed to produce explosive drama. A skinhead facing trial for a racially motivated murder is being defended by a Jewish publicly appointed attorney. The cherry docs of the title refer to the steel-toed cherry-colored Doc Marten combat boots the youth wore when he repeatedly kicked his victim.

The play was first staged in 1998, in Toronto, and has been in constant production around the world for about 14 years, Gow said. It was turned into a film in 2005 and is currently being staged by the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon.

Although he doesn’t tie the story to any specific event, Gow, who is Jewish, cited some factors that inspired the play.

“My mother’s parents were of the generation that was lucky enough to get out of Belgium at the time of the Second World War. Both my grandfathers were in the Second World War, and so, when I lived in Ottawa, in Montreal and Toronto in the 1980s, and I would see skinheads — in particular, white supremacist skinheads — I would look at them and think of the history that my family had been through, and I would have a really visceral response to them, and I would think, ‘Well, what’s this all about?’

“There was a young guy with whom I was in school who was kicked in the face outside of a gay bar,” Gow continued, “because he was in the gay village, and some skinheads attacked him because he was gay. And then there were a couple of cases, a few, in fact, in Canada, where a Jewish lawyer ended up representing a skinhead on trial for murder.”

Early in the proceedings, Michael (Andrew Walker), the perpetrator, says he was drunk and is sorry his victim died, but he also makes racist remarks and even tells Danny, the lawyer (Alan Blumenfeld), “In an ideal world I’d see you eliminated. In this world I need you more than anyone.”

In approaching his character, Walker said, he imagined a backstory for the skinhead, after Gow shared some of the thoughts he had while writing the play. (Walker, who also played Michael in the film version, is currently working on a movie and won’t join the production until Sept. 18; until then, understudy Mark Cecil replaces him.)

David Gow

“Michael had a father,” Walker imagined, who “was probably a big drinker and beat his mom a bit. His mom was a real pushover. His dad would probably beat him up a bit, too, as he grew up. He was pushed out of the house at a young age, spent lots of nights on the streets, and slowly started to find this family in the skinheads. From 13 or 14 years old, he’s been committed to a life as a skinhead and has a family of skins that he has fun with and who are all like-minded, and also come from the same sort of upbringing that he did.”

For his part, Danny openly despises Michael’s belief system, but takes the assignment and does his best.

“He comes up against everything he believes in — his training and a background as an educated intellectual,” Blumenfeld explained. “He comes up against his political beliefs of tolerance and liberal, progressive inclusion. And when faced with someone with such violently anti-Semitic, bigoted hatred, he takes on the challenge of trying to find, as he says at the end of the play, a small piece of redemption, because he believes in tikkun olam, mending the world, and he sees this as a possibility.”

Blumenfeld believes the transformation that occurs in Danny because of his relationship with the skinhead is an unexpected outcome for this character.

“Danny’s character helps the skinhead see something different, but as a result, this Jewish lawyer winds up seeing the dark side of his own personality and loses sight of what it is that he’s doing.”

The actor added, “He has a spiritual breakdown. He has a dark night of the soul as a result of this interaction.”

On the other hand, Michael is transformed in a different direction. “He’s on this teeter-totter,” Walker said. “The ongoing phrase, the token phrase, is ‘bringing Michael through the eye of the needle.’ This is what Danny keeps saying to him through the entire play, basically, ‘I’m trying to take you through the eye of the needle. Once you pass through this eye of the needle, then you can decide,’ because I just have to connect with life, with reality, with people.”

Walker continued, “So, he’s now being put to the test, and every single belief, and everything in which he’s had some sort of trust, is now being questioned.

“There’s a line at the very end of the play, where Michael says, ‘If this man, Danny, is willing to help me, how could he be the spawn of Satan?’ ”

Both men have grown in a painful manner, Gow observed, and, Danny, who has suffered many losses, begins to discover a form of spirituality.

The action unfolds over the course of seven days, which Gow says is an intentional allusion to the story of creation.

“There’s a mythic template that sits underneath the play, and that mythic template is a battle between two people who could as easily be principals, or beings, inspired through looking at the literature of the Torah, and so these people are embodying struggles which have existed through time.”

Ultimately, Gow stressed, the story examines the necessity for people to coexist and to go beyond tolerance to actually love one another, or there will always be war, strife and murder. He pointed to the current recession in the United States and remarked that most people imagine themselves a victim of the situation, even when they still have their jobs, their education and their homes — and they have decided that they can’t hire anyone.

“I had a rabbi once who said to me, ‘You should pay people to do things.’ I said, ‘Why, because they’ll make a good job of it?’ And he said, ‘No. You should pay people to do things, because if you don’t give the other guy a plate of food to eat, he’s going to have to come after you eventually.’ And, I actually saw, as a result of that, in my own life, that when you hire other people, when you engage other people, when you show some compassion to other people, it, generally speaking, provides you, as the person who looks out for someone else, with much more than you’re giving.  You usually get more in return for your compassion and your kindness than whatever it is that you put on the table.”

“Cherry Docs”
Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum
The S. Mark Taper Foundation Youth Pavilion
1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd.
Topanga, CA 90290
(310) 455-2322 main office
(310) 455-3724 fax
(310) 455-3723 box office
http://www.theatricum.com
Thursdays, Sept. 6, 13, 20, 27; Saturdays, Oct. 6, 13. All shows at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $20
A panel discussion follows each performance.

Stage dramedy tackles interfaith marriage taboo


If you take Israel out of the equation, there’s little in the Jewish world that gets people as riled up as the idea of intermarriage. For most secular and liberal Jews, intermarriage, which once carried a huge social stigma, has become more acceptable. Visit any Reform synagogue in Los Angeles, and you’re bound to come across all kinds of intermarried families. Indeed, in the liberal Jewish world, intermarriage has even begun to be seen as an opportunity to bring more people into the Jewish community. But in the Orthodox world, the stigma of intermarriage is as strong as ever, and Maia Madison’s new play “Nobody Likes Jews When They’re Winning,” explores exactly what happens when a girl from a traditional family falls in love with guy who happens to be non-Jewish.

“The play is about an interfaith couple who want to get married and live happily ever after, as long as her Jewish family doesn’t find out,” said Madison, during a phone interview between rehearsals. Her main character, who draws a little from Madison’s own life story, “goes on a quest to find out the real meaning of her Jewish identity and the real meaning of family.”

Madison grew up in an observant home in New York City. Her parents were both from Orthodox backgrounds and kept kosher, to an extent, but Madison was also the first girl in her family to have a bat mitzvah.

“I’m a very strong-minded woman, I went to Northwestern University,” said Madison, noting that some in her family were disappointed she didn’t go to Stern College.

The idea that became “Nobody Likes Jews When They’re Winning” came to Madison when she watched a close friend’s relationship fall apart after her ill father moved in with her and her partner. “She picked her family over her relationship.”

The experience made Madison realize that sometimes we’re forced into tough situations where we have to choose between family and love.

“Now if you’re 30, you can’t get a job, even though you have an MBA,” said Madison of the economic situation that’s left many post-college grads living at home. According to Madison, that new dynamic has wreaked havoc with the notion of “leave and cleave” that’s presented in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined (cleave) to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

An additional topic explored in Madison’s play is how Hollywood and the world at large sees Jews. Madison recalled getting a call from a non-Jewish friend at CBS who’d just been pitched a show that he described as “ ‘The O.C.’ meets Temple Beth Israel,” and wanted Madison’s opinion as a Jew as to why it felt “off” to him. “Nobody likes Jews when they’re winning,” Madison told him.

“There are no shows where likable Jews drive around in fancy cars, live in million-dollar homes and spend a $100,000 on a bar mitzvah at the Beverly Wilshire, the same way that the people on ‘Revenge’ do, for example,” Madison said. The question of why that’s so is one that dogs her, and she explores it thoroughly in the show.

But lest anyone think the play appeals only to Jews, the director, Diana Basmajian, a non-Jew, says that’s just not so.

“No matter what a person’s background was, they were still talking in that lobby,” Basmajian said of the audience from the show’s staged readings.

Basmajian and Madison have been friends for more than 20 years. “I’m half Armenian, and I think as I got to know more of my Armenian heritage that I was drawn to plays about the human struggle, and particularly the Holocaust,” Basmajian said. “I was always teased by Maia, because my early work as a director was all Holocaust plays and plays on Jewish families.”

Basmajian jumped at the chance to work with Madison on her latest piece, because she realized it was something that was close to Madison’s heart. “It kind of bridges that beautiful gap between drama and comedy. That’s real life — some things are hilarious and some things, you’re on the verge of tears at the same time.”

Producer Laetitia Leon was also eager to work with Madison, and coming from an intermarried family, the piece was particularly poignant for her. “I felt like I wish I’d had this story when I was younger. It’s not that I don’t appreciate religion, I just wasn’t raised with it,” said Leon, whose parents raised her as an atheist. She believes the play will spark dialogue, no matter a person’s background. “If you don’t want to talk about it, I don’t think you were listening,” said Leon, laughing.

“You don’t want to write a play that only has meaning for one section of the population,” Madison said. “All of my gay friends came to me and said, oh my God, this is a coming-out story. I didn’t even realize. Every one of my gay friends had to face going to their parents and knowing that they may turn their backs on them forever.”

Basmajian, for one, is bullish on the piece, and she hopes it will touch audiences of all backgrounds who come to see it at the Open Fist Theatre Company. “We need that other voice out there that watches and listens and says, ‘Oh wait, I agree, I disagree, here’s my opinion, here’s what happened to me.’ ”

“Nobody Likes Jews When They’re Winning” will be playing at the Open Fist Theatre Company through Sept. 8. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit openfist.org.  A scene from the play will also be performed as part of the Temple of the Arts’ (www.templeofthearts.org) Friday night service on Aug. 17.

Shlomo Carlebach’s life comes to the stage in ‘Soul Doctor’


As he researched the complex life of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach for a new musical, playwright Daniel Wise found a surprisingly candid source.

Neshama Carlebach, a successful recording artist and popular performer of her father’s compositions, openly revealed his many struggles as “a lonely and conflicted” Orthodox rabbi—both rock star and spiritual shepherd.

“When someone collaborates on a show and at the same time is the daughter of the subject matter, and she is serving of the show rather than her own perspective, it helps make the show what it is,” Wise says. “It was also very brave.”

As Neshama explains, her father’s message is that everyone “can surpass their own walls. Some people say he was an angel. He was a person. But he was a strong person. He made beautiful choices and that should be a inspiration for the world.”

Some of Carlebach’s followers aren’t so pleased with the candor.

“Reb Shlomo was a soul on fire who was a rebbe to thousands,” says Shy Yellin, president of the Carlebach Shul on New York City’s Upper West Side. “He was a tzaddik rooted in the love of God and His Torah and whose purpose, like other great rebbes, was to connect us to ‘Hashem yisborech’ in the deepest way. Because he was human, with all the challenges one faces, Shlomo could relate to his flock and we to him. If he made any mistakes, they were long ago expiated. He was beloved by all.”

During his lifetime and perhaps even more since his death in 1994, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach—known widely as Reb Shlomo or simply Shlomo—is credited with reinvigorating Jewish life with uplifting song and spiritual teachings. His fascinating trajectory is the basis of a Broadway-bound show, “Soul Doctor: The Journey of a Rock Star Rabbi,” the first new Jewish hit musical in decades.

Neshama shares an official “creative credit for additional material” for the show, which is carried by more than 30 Carlebach melodies, often with new lyrics by David Schechter. “Soul Doctor” sold out in test runs in Florida and New Orleans, and opened to a limited engagement July 24-Aug. 19 at the New York Theatre Workshop. Again, the show rapidly sold out.

Producers are negotiating with a New York theater for an open-ended run. 

As a cultural phenomenon in the 1960s music scene, Carlebach’s songs grew wildly popular. He performed on stage with Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Jerry Garcia, Pete Seeger, the Grateful Dead and Nina Simone, among others. He played venues from Carnegie Hall to hippie coffeehouses, prisons to ashrams. He even performed spontaneous midnight concerts under New York City’s West Side Highway for the local homeless, whom he often knew by name.

Carlebach died suddenly when his heart failed on airplane at LaGuardia Airport in New York. His annual yahrzeit triggers memorial concerts around the world. In a category all his own, his music now captivates Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, gay and lesbian, Orthodox and Chasidic communities.

Cross-over Jewish reggae sensation Matisyahu coined himself a “Bob Marley-Shlomo Carlebach fusion.” Even Pope John Paul II used Carlebach’s composition “Brothers and Friends” to open his last Mass at Giants Stadium in New Jersey.

“Soul Doctor” reveals how Carlebach’s music and heart-centered teachings of “boundless love and joy” touched disillusioned hippies and dropouts, says Wise, who also directs the show.

The musical riffs on the successful formula of “Rent,” which Wise took on tour around the world. Both employ actors playing multiple roles and doubling as stage hands, gracefully transforming sets through scenes.

“Soul Doctor” travels from contemporary Vienna back to Carlebach’s childhood there under Nazi occupation, from a New York home and a dynamic musical beit midrash to the psychedelic House of Love and Prayer in 1960s San Francisco and more, in the multiple loops of Carlebach’s explorations of Jerusalem. Caracas. Nepal. And beyond. 

As his newly published commentary on Genesis reveals, Carlebach also was an innovative Torah scholar. As a Chasidic figure and composer of niggunim—wordless, expressive tunes infused with spirituality—Carlebach bridges Old World and new, pre-war Orthodoxy and the post-war establishment he realized wasn’t reaching America’s rapidly assimilating Jews.

Despite its rabbi protagonist, “Soul Doctor” attracts diverse audiences because “It’s about how we are spiritually all the same,” says veteran Broadway composer and orchestrator Steve Margoshes, who wove together the score for “Soul Doctor” and previous Broadway smashes such as Elton John’s “Aida,” “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” and “The Who’s Tommy.”

In the 1950s, the thirtysomething Orthodox rabbi searches American counterculture and becomes intimate friends with Simone, a then-unknown jazz singer who introduced him to gospel music and R&B.

Carlebach suddenly finds himself “torn between his deep traditional roots and his dream to create a Jewish revival through his joyous and soulful melodies,” Margoshes explains. “He wakes up one day and decides the Jewish experience is bankrupt and he is going to reinvigorate it, no matter the personal cost.”

Their unusual connection—Simone later became the musical voice of the civil rights movement—helped Shlomo shape contemporary Jewish music and reinvigorate the American Jewish experience in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Wise says.

With composite characters and scenes, “Soul Doctor” is not a strictly factual presentation of Carlebach’s life. Rather than pure hagiography, it is a gripping exploration of the many challenges and controversies encountered by Carlebach.

“It is more the idea of Shlomo than what historically happened,” says Rabbi Naftali Citrin of the Carlebach Shul and Carlebach’s grand-nephew. “It’s a version of Shlomo’s life that can’t possibly contain everything.”

“Soul Doctor” reflects the humanity of this larger-than-life personality leaving an Orthodox dynasty to become Chasidic while attempting to reach the young and unplugged through conventional rabbinic teachings. The methods prove ineffective, so Carlebach struggles again to break out of the mold of previous Orthodox leaders and “become Shlomo,” the recording star, performer, spiritual minstrel and friend still both treasured and criticized.

Carlebach grapples with questions of modernity and how to heal young broken souls who expect a hug and won’t dance with a mechitzah.

“Soul Doctor” doesn’t shy away from Carlebach’s struggling with his upbringing’s Orthodox restrictions against even casual physical contact with women and intense condemnation from the establishment and his own father. Audiences watch him find love, attempt to balance family with touring, and ultimately encounter a devastating divorce when his wife takes their children—Neshama and her sister, Nedara (now a married mother of two living in Israel)—to Toronto.

Today, the sisters honor their father’s rich contributions to Jewish tradition through the Carlebach Legacy Trust, which collects his teachings, compositions, photographs and bootleg recordings. Neshama, also a mother of two, is working on her ninth album celebrating her father’s music, despite Orthodoxy’s concerns of kol isha, or halachic rulings regarding men hearing women sing. She also is trailblazing interfaith concerts with the Rev. Roger Hambrick and members of the Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir of the Bronx. Their album, “Higher and Higher,” was a sixth-time Grammy entrant last year.

“There is work to be done,” Neshama says, “and not everyone is down for the work.”

This is Lisa Alcalay Klug’s third article in a JTA series about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s legacy. Klug is the author of two humor books, “Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe,” a National Jewish Book Award finalist, and “Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe,” a celebration of Jewish women debuting in October.

‘Oy’ bring the past to the present at Culver City’s Actors’ Gang


For Academy Award-winning actor Tim Robbins, who founded Actors’ Gang and serves as its artistic director, presenting plays that are relevant to our time is paramount for the company. To that end, the Culver City-based theater’s current offering is the U.S. premiere of “Oy,” a tale set in 1995 of two German-Jewish sisters, Selma (Mary Eileen O’Donnell), age 89, and Jenny (Jeanette Horn), age 86, who have accepted an invitation to visit Osnabrück, the town in Hanover, Germany, where they were raised and which they left as Hitler was consolidating his power. Because the sisters are among the dwindling number of survivors with recollections of the Nazi era, the town’s mayor has invited them to come to bear witness to that history for the younger generation. 

As the story begins, the two women are back at Selma’s house in Paris, ruminating on their trip and their memories of the past. The question, “Is the past relevant?” is, according to Robbins, the most important theme explored in the play.

“I think there’s something in human nature,” he said, “for some reason, I don’t know why, that wants to make the past irrelevant, that wants to make it ‘another time,’ to say, ‘That would never happen now,’ or ‘It can’t happen here,’ or any number of modifications or compromises. The truth is that until we really understand history and understand the root causes of something as nightmarish as the rise of Hitler, it will continue to happen; it will continue to visit itself upon us. 

“This play, for me, is extremely relevant,” Robbins said. “If you go over to Europe, there is a right-wing strain in the oppositions, the neo-Nazis. The hatred still exists. As long as the hatred exists, this play is relevant. Unfortunately, it’s still relevant today.”

Though the work is basically fictional, playwright Hélène Cixous, 75, speaking from Paris, said the characters were inspired by her 102-year-old mother and her mother’s younger sister. Their family, which was Jewish, had lived in Osnabrück for centuries, and, decades after the war, the sisters were invited back by the mayor.

“My mother and her sister were wondering whether they should accept or not, because it was really an ethical and political decision. So, they decided to accept. Of course, all kinds of things happened, which I excerpted and condensed and turned into metaphors. They really did go back to the city of their childhood, where nothing was left except ghosts.

“It was a way of reconciling the city with its past,” Cixous said. “It’s something that happens in some cities in Germany. In Berlin they do it. It’s not everywhere. Here and there, there are cities that do this type of thing — open or build synagogues where there are no Jews. It’s very paradoxical.”

The paradoxes and the complex layers of meaning underneath what might appear to be a simple surface are part of what attracted director Georges Bigot to the work.

“There is life in the play, because the playwright chooses two old women to transmit the themes about big questions, such as whether or not to forget, the evocation of racism from the beginning of the century and the racism of today, the universality of these two characters and also to forgive or not forgive. These questions are still burning.”

The idea of forgiveness in the play, Cixous explained, is not forgiveness in the Christian sense. 

“It is simply coming to terms with reality and its complexities. It is exactly what happened in South Africa. It’s ‘I’m not going to judge them.’ You can’t be a judge. That would mean, ‘I’m superior morally,’ which is, of course, something that no one is entitled to think,” she said, adding that “those Germans who have invited the sisters belong to another story. Of course, they’re not responsible. The fact that they make these gestures is quite remarkable.”

At the center of the play is the idea that, once the visit is over, the sisters can discuss things they didn’t dare express in Osnabrück. “There is a subtitle,” Cixous said, “which is ‘This, You Mustn’t Say.’

“They refrain from saying what they see — for instance, the brutality — and something that can be murderous in the head of the Jewish community, who beats his wife, [which] leads to her death.”

Another forbidden subject arises from the pun on the title, “Oy,” which in French sounds the same as the word for garlic.

“The Nazis would say that the Jews reeked of garlic. They would walk by and pinch their noses and say that it was horrible, that the Jews were impregnated with garlic,” Cixous said, adding that her own grandmother, whom she called “a very distinguished lady,” didn’t use garlic: “And she would tell me, ‘Only the Polish use garlic,’ which was a way of being innocently racist.”

In the play, Selma says: “Everyone is racist. Jews were the most racist of all. With the Poles. The Poles were always having pogroms; they’d turn up on our doorsteps, a bunch of wretches. That’s a thing you can’t say — no point spitting in our own soup. They’d turn up on our doorsteps, they’d say, ‘We are miserable poor souls.’ They’d come to the Elders. The Elders would offer them tickets to the next city.”

The play’s weighty ideas are leavened with humor, which is at times gentle, as when the two old women clash like children over whose memories are the most valid; at other times, the humor can be quite dark. At one point, the sisters talk about the fact that since there were no Jews left in Osnabrück, the townspeople imported and paid Jews who were “not really Jews” so there would be enough for a service in the rebuilt synagogue.

“They were Russians,” Cixous said, “and they knew nothing about Judaism or being Jewish, but it was important that they make ‘as if.’ It was all a kind of ‘make as if,’ which is, of course, the strategy of comic writing.”

Another example of the play’s dark humor, according to Bigot, is the gift of stones from the old synagogue that the sisters received. “One can say that it’s a nice present,” the director said, “but to receive a present of old stones from the synagogue that was destroyed by the Nazis is, for me, to kill them twice. There is something awful about this, but also something comical.”

As for what the director hopes will emerge from the play, Bigot said, “I would like everyone in the audience to make a little peace with themselves.”

For his part, Robbins would like audiences to come away with “a full heart.” And Cixous wants audiences to think about racism, which she believes is universal and not limited to any particular nationality.

“It’s everywhere. It’s always there; it’s the curse of humanity, and one has to fight it back all the time, everywhere. And when you think that you have put out the fire in one place, it breaks out in another place. It’s unfortunate. It’s most important to realize that no one is innocent, no one.”

“Oy” Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Thursdays, 7 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 28. $20. Thursdays are pay-what-you-can. (310) 838-4264 or www.theactorsgang.com.

Jesse Eisenberg writes Holocaust-themed play


Actor Jesse Eisenberg has written a play revolving around the Holocaust.

The play, called “The Revisionist,” will open at New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre, off Broadway, in 2013, according to the Times of Israel.

Eisenberg, who portrayed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network” and is now starring in Woody Allen’s “To Rome With Love,” has not indicated whether he will appear in the play. He appeared in his play “Asuncion,” which also ran off Broadway last year.

“The Revisionist” will be about a science-fiction writer who travels to Poland and meets with a relative who survived the Holocaust and has a secret.

‘The Exorcist’ at the Geffen: No green vomit, but plenty of evil


William Peter Blatty was a Georgetown University student in August 1949 when he came across a front-page story in the Washington Post titled “Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy Reported Held in Devil’s Grip.” Blatty, a devout Catholic, was fascinated by the accounts of the 14-year-old’s bed violently shaking and torrents of curses in Latin whenever the exorcist commanded the demon to leave the boy.

Two decades later, Blatty recalled this case and others to create his 1971 iconic supernatural suspense novel, “The Exorcist,” in which a 12-year-old girl named Regan is possessed by a malevolent spirit. The novel became a best-seller and was turned into an Oscar-winning film, an international sensation that had patrons fainting in the theater as the Regan character spewed thick green vomit, turned her head around 360 degrees and masturbated with a crucifix. 

Read more at jewishjournal.com/the_ticket.

When art imitates art


There’s a vast difference between history and historical fiction. I tend to prefer the latter, finding myself in awe of writers who can carry readers into a world that’s both factual and imagined. Obviously, there’s the underlying question of trust: How do we know when and whether we can trust an author who presents a mélange in which fact and fiction aren’t easily teased apart? We don’t.

Nevertheless, Upton Sinclair’s cult epic Lanny Budd novels may tell us more about the complex interweavings of 20th century history and culture than many more scholarly tomes. And David Lodge’s recent biographical novels about Henry James and H.G. Wells may include fantasy events, but they also expand on our grasp of each writer’s life, if not his writings. The risk, as playwright John Logan writes in “Red,” his play about Mark Rothko, is that “[y]ou insult these men [i.e., Matisse, Pollock, Van Gogh] by reducing them to your own adolescent stereotypes. Grapple with them, yes. Argue with them, always. But don’t think you understand them. Don’t think you have captured them. They are beyond you.”

Would that Logan had taken his own advice in writing the play that won him the 2010 Tony Award for Best Play. Logan reduces Rothko, the now-legendary Abstract Expressionist painter, to something of a stereotype. Nevertheless, he has also managed to create a vehicle for a gripping theatrical experience — at least if the leading role in this two-character play is acted by Alfred Molina. 

Molina starred in “Red” when it was first presented at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2009, and he reprised the role in 2010 at New York’s John Golden Theater (where I saw it). Luckily, L.A. theatergoers will be able to see Molina play Rothko yet again this summer. It’s breathtaking theater, worth seeing if only for Molina’s brilliant performance. And for those who prefer their cultural clichés unchallenged, it may even come off as profound. 

But a cautionary word from the perspective of one who has spent a great deal of time around art and artists: Despite our longing for artists to speak to us in words, we may well be better off knowing them primarily through their work, albeit with the added gloss of those unchallenged myths that often accompany them. Even Logan seems to understand that, although the published script of his play is dedicated to Stephen Sondheim “for reminding me.” If the reminder referenced here is “Sunday in the Park with George,” Sondheim’s homage to the post-Impressionist Georges Seurat, it’s worth considering that Sondheim skillfully made certain we recognized his Seurat confection as a fictional riff on the agonies of artistic creation. Logan, on the other hand, invites theatergoers to join a sort of historically depicted artist and his (presumably imagined) assistant in disquisitions about the creative process. One of Sondheim’s songs — “Finishing the Hat” — conveys more about this inexplicable question of creativity than all of Logan’s play.

Rothko was born in Dvinsk (Vitebsk Province, now in Latvia) in 1903, and came to the United States in 1913. While he may well have commented on “thinky, talky Jews” — an odd expression Logan puts in his mouth — it seems unlikely that by 1958-59, when the play is set, he would have said, “My first dealer said he had too many Jewish painters on the books. So Marcus Rothkowitz becomes Mark Rothko. Now nobody knows I’m a Jew!” Surely everyone knew he was a Jew. However, this play isn’t really about a Jewish Rothko. He describes himself far more accurately earlier in the play, when he says, “I’m a noun. A Rothko.” Of course that’s precisely what makes this work a theatrical, if not an intellectual, tour de force well worth experiencing.

As I’ve written before, viewing Rothko as a Jewish painter — which doesn’t equate with viewing him as a Jew — has always been hovering around discussions of his work, and this play is no exception. But there’s never been a consensus about what that might mean. Early works abound in unreadable, vaguely referential imagery — signs and symbols whose wonder lies in their ambiguity. The multilayered paintings that we have come to identify as quintessential Rothko — one of which he’s working on through the course of Logan’s play — are too complex to be pegged as “Jewish” in any sense. Logan’s imaginary artist, painting one of the celebrated murals commissioned for New York’s Four Seasons Restaurant (where they never were installed), is meant to be so plausible, we’re not supposed to ask too many questions. Some dialogue from the script:

Rothko: All my life I wanted just this … to create a place … a place where the viewer could live in contemplation with the work and give it some of the same attention and care I gave it. Like a chapel … a place of communion.

Ken [the young assistant]: But … it’s a restaurant.

Rothko: No … I will make it a temple.

For those of us who love Houston’s Rothko Chapel, a later commission for a spiritual space created through the patronage of John and Dominique de Menil, these words make the artist sound somewhat prescient. But clever quips don’t get to the heart of what this play is about: generational conflict, sons metaphorically killing their fathers, and how an artist who really loves and knows the art of the past has the guts to create work that is truly his own expression. We are becoming accustomed to celebrating ignorance in the public sphere, which includes cultural ignorance. But until recently, when many art schools no longer bother teaching art history or basic skills in media like drawing or painting, we used to expect artists to grapple with their predecessors’ work as well as their technical prowess. 

Diving into a large Rothko canvas (we want to do it physically, but are stuck with doing it visually) is a profoundly moving commentary on the work of earlier artists who tried to understand the relationships between color and space. That may, in fact, be the essential Jewish component in Mark Rothko’s work, because Jewish culture is so insistently about layered accretions of learning: sons respecting their fathers’ wisdom while trumping them with even greater erudition.

To make this happen on stage, playwright Logan lets us know that Rothko is parrying with his predecessors, as he emotes: “Rembrandt and Rothko … Rembrandt and Rothko … Rothko and Rembrandt … Rothko and Rembrandt … and Turner. Rothko and Rembrandt and Turner … Rothko and Rembrandt and Turner …”

Perhaps that’s what the talmudic scholar Rashi was doing when he cited earlier commentators: legitimizing his own writing by letting the reader know that he understood what came before him, thereby becoming one with them. And possibly, as poet David Lehman writes about Richard Rodgers, we understand Rothko as someone who has “done a lot for the Jews just by being one.”

The challenge is that Logan’s Rothko is a martinet and a pedant, and does not suggest the vision of a genius painter of indefinable and sublime color mutations. You can’t really create a painting on stage anyway (credit Sondheim with being clever enough not to try), and — back to questions of history and historical fiction — the attempt to have a large painting somehow develop before your eyes promotes an illusion of ease that’s wholly at odds with what we see when we spend time looking at Rothko’s actual paintings. The stage is, however, a splendid venue in which to establish interpersonal tensions, and with Molina’s acting skills, it’s a forum for tough intergenerational combat.  Rothko was, in life and in this drama, intellectually astute and sophisticated, well-read and thoughtful. And while his various pretentious homilies, scattered throughout the play, sometimes can sound inauthentic in this context, the verbal combat nevertheless produces some amazing theatrical fireworks.

And that, in the end, is likely the most significant merit of Logan’s play.

“Red” will be staged Aug. 1 through Sept. 9 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. For tickets, visit

Pro-Palestinian activists disrupt Israeli theater performance in London


Pro-Palestinian activists protested against an Israeli theater company’s production of “The Merchant of Venice” at the Globe Theater in London.

Monday night’s protests of the Habima company’s production began outside the theater, where dozens stood waving Palestinian flags and calling for a boycott of Israeli products, according to reports. Pro-Israeli activists mounted a counter-demonstration. 

Inside the theater, Palestinian protesters during the performance began waving Palestinian flags and flashing signs against Israel. They were removed from the theater. The actors continued with the show.

Ticket holders had been warned not to bring extra bags and underwent extensive checks before they were allowed to enter the theater.

The Habima production of “The Merchant of Venice” is part of the Globe to Globe festival, a six-week event at the theater featuring Shakespeare’s 37 plays performed in 37 languages. A Palestinian theater company is scheduled to perform “Richard II” in Arabic.

In an open letter published March 29 in The Guardian, three dozen British directors, writers and actors expressed “dismay and regret” about the Israeli production.

Habima “has a shameful record of involvement with illegal Israeli settlements in Occupied Palestinian Territory,” the letter said, citing the fact that the company has agreed to perform in the culture centers of two large Israeli settlements and threatened repercussions against any actors or directors who decide out of conscience not to perform there.

“By inviting Habima, Shakespeare’s Globe is undermining the conscientious Israeli actors and playwrights who have refused to break international law,” the letter said.

In September, anti-Israel protesters disrupted a live BBC broadcast of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in London’s Albert Hall as part of the BBC Proms summer classical music festival.

Hershey Felder’s two Los Angeles theater turns


Hershey Felder is a prolific performer, writer and composer, but he is setting a new personal record with world premieres of two plays at different Los Angeles venues.

Best known as the piano-playing alter ego of George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Frederic Chopin, Felder is exploring new territories in both productions

He is currently on stage at the Pasadena Playhouse in “Lincoln – An American Story,” tripling as author, symphonic composer and solo actor.

Felder portrays Dr. Charles Leale, an actual, though largely unknown, historical figure. Leale, then a 23-year old army surgeon, was at the Ford’s Theatre on the night Lincoln was assassinated and rushed to the stricken president’s side.

Across the mountains at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, Felder, staying for once behind the scenes, is the adapter and director of “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” with previews starting April 17.

Concert pianist Mona Golabek is the solo performer of the show, which, like “Lincoln,” is taken from life, but in a vastly different time and setting.

Golabek portrays her own mother, Lisa Jura, who inherited her musical virtuosity from her own mother and, in turn, passed it on to her daughter.

A gifted young Jewish pianist in Vienna, Lisa was sent by her parents to safety on a Kindertransport to England, following the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938.

There she found shelter, along with 30 other young Jewish refugees, in a Quaker-run hostel on Willesden Lane, all enduring intense German aerial bombardment during the London Blitz.

Golabek wrote of her mother’s travails and musical triumphs in her book “The Children of Willesden Lane” (with Lee Cohen), on which the show is based.

But the real message of the play is the power of music to uplift our spirits in the darkest of times, Golabek observed during an interview at the Geffen Playhouse, and her performance is permeated with some of the world’s most enduring piano compositions.

Unlike many survivors of the Holocaust era who never spoke about their experiences with their children, Lisa Jura shared her stories freely with her daughters Mona and Renee.

“My mother would be giving us piano lessons and suddenly a passage would remind her of some childhood event, and she would talk about it,” Golabek said.

One such incident was Lisa’s heartbreaking separation from her family at the Vienna train station in 1938, when her mother’s final words to her were, “Hold on to your music; it will be your best friend.”

The advice has become the family’s leitmotif through succeeding generations and is perpetuated in their Hold On To Your Music Foundation. There is one other dimension to Golabek’s performance. “My role allows me to pay homage to my parents,” she said. “How many people ever get that opportunity?”

After the war, the family moved to Los Angeles, where Mona was born and grew up to become an internationally acclaimed concert pianist. Her honors include the Avery Fisher Prize and the People’s Award of the International Chopin Competition.

She, in turn, is passing on the legacy to her late sister’s four children, of whom Michelle, Sarah and Rachel are pianists, and Jonathan is a violinist.

Golabek met Felder three years ago, while he was performing at the Geffen Playhouse, and she asked him whether the story of her mother could be transferred to the stage.

Felder said yes, wrote the adaptation, and for the last few weeks has been in rehearsal with Golabek. At the same time, he has been performing nightly at the Pasadena Playhouse, first in “Monsieur Chopin,” then “Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein,” and is now appearing in “Lincoln.” Joel Zwick (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) is the director of all three plays.

Felder juggles his responsibilities “by performing in the evening and preparing for the next show during the day,” squeezed into a daily 7:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. schedule, he said during a phone interview.

Turning to the Lincoln play, he noted that Leale, the young surgeon who rushed to Lincoln’s side, talked about his historic encounter only once, during a convivial evening 44 years later.

“This is a fascinating story about what can happen to an ordinary man who is suddenly thrust into a historical event,” Felder said. “Lincoln” also features Felder’s symphonic compositions, performed by a 45-piece orchestra.

As to his role as behind-the-scenes director of “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” Felder said that his friends are so used to seeing him at the center of the stage action, “that they suspect I may be playing Mona’s role in drag.”

His next project will be set in Paris, where Felder, when not on the road, lives with his wife, Kim Campbell, a former Canadian prime minister.

“Lincoln” is playing at the Pasadena Playhouse through April 7. For tickets and information, call (626) 921-1161, or check http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.

“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” will be at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre of the Geffen Playhouse, with previews starting April 17. The official opening night is April 25, and closing night May 27. For tickets and information, phone (310) 208-5454, or visit http://www.geffenplayhouse.com.

At home, on stage and screen


Somewhere in Creede, Colo., en route to a mountain cabin in Santa Fe, N.M., Mandy Patinkin is above 10,000 feet. “If I sound stupid, it’s because there’s no oxygen up here,” he says.

No chance of that. In fact, Patinkin — a legitimate star of stage, screen and song for more than 25 years — is quite articulate, and in good spirits. Given that many know Mandel Bruce Patinkin primarily through some rather dark and tumultuous characters, including Saul Berenson, the conflicted CIA mentor he plays on Showtime’s acclaimed series “Homeland,” the jokes and lighthearted self-reflection are welcome.

And authentic, says Patinkin, 59, who adds, “What I want more than anything is to be hopeful and optimistic.

“For the majority of my career, the music I have performed all over the world has been the furthest thing from darkness,” he continues. “The one caveat I would offer to that is that I have an affinity for the music of Stephen Sondheim. I feel that he writes like Shakespeare, and both of these people struggle with darkness. But the gifts they have left humanity is that, in the body of their works, they have struggled through darkness to show the light.” 

En route to his first vacation in “I can’t remember when,” Patinkin soon will return to sea level to a full slate of concerts — some with longtime friend and co-“Evita” Tony winner Patti LuPone and some solo — as well as production on the second season of “Homeland,” which starts shooting in May.  Also on the Patinkin docket: trying out a two-person performance with cross-dressing artist Taylor Mac titled “The Last Two People on Earth” and — whenever possible — collaborating with his songwriter son, Gideon Grody-Patinkin, a musician the elder Patinkin says he seeks out for creative advice rather than the other way around.

His schedule, Patinkin concedes, can get Byzantine — so crowded, in fact, that a Tel Aviv run of the Anne Frank-themed play “Compulsion,” which he headlined in 2011 in New York, will have to wait. Still, his current slate of projects is feeding his soul. “An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin,” which opens a six-day run at the Thousand Oaks Performing Arts Center on March 20, is an always welcome chance to take the stage, while the first season of “Homeland” was, in Patinkin’s words, “One of the most extraordinary experiences of my career.”

That’s saying something. Patinkin burst onto the scene in 1979, winning a Tony Award for his portrayal of Che Guevara in the Broadway premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita.” In 1984, he earned a Tony nomination creating the role of Georges Seurat in Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George.” A successful TV career followed, with extended stints on “Chicago Hope” (earning Patinkin an Emmy in 1995), “Dead Like Me” and “Criminal Minds.” On the big screen, in such films as “The Princess Bride,” “Alien Nation,” “Yentl” and “Dick Tracy,” Patinkin has worked with the likes of Warren Beatty, Madonna and Barbra Streisand.

Patinkin sang in his synagogue choir while growing up on Chicago’s South Side, but his music career came about almost by accident. Since kicking off a series of off-night performances at the Public Theatre in the mid-1980s at the suggestion of Public Theater impresario Joseph Papp, Patinkin has never stopped singing, doing regular concerts and cutting CDs, including the all-Yiddish “Mamaloshen.”

The music he performs, Patinkin points out, is usually upbeat, especially when he’s working with LuPone.

“If I’m tired and exhausted and something happens, I’ll probably lean more toward the darker side of experiencing the moment,” Patinkin says, “and Patti is almost exhaustingly optimistic and positive, so she doesn’t allow on stage or off any sadness, for the most part.

“I love that,” Patinkin continues. “She is the best medicine in the world for me. Don’t think I don’t have tough times, but I go back to that drugstore of hope and optimism whenever I can.”

Patinkin and LuPone were at Juilliard at the same time, although in different classes, and they never met. Patinkin recalls being blown away by LuPone’s work in a student production, and several years later, the two actors came together again in a New York rehearsal room for “Evita” with Patinkin cast as Che Guevara, the conscience of Argentina, opposite LuPone’s Eva Peron.

The two performers stayed in touch over the ensuing years. In 2002, Patinkin was invited to perform at the opening of a theatrical complex in Texas. The organizer told Patinkin that LuPone was slated to perform, and he told LuPone that Patinkin had also committed.

“The truth was, he didn’t have either one of us,” Patinkin says. “Even though he lied, when he came to ‘Patti-Mandy’ on Broadway, I told him, ‘I’m counting on you to lie again so I’ll get the next great thing in my life.’”

The resulting two-person performance, guided by Patinkin’s longtime musical partner Paul Ford, charted the creative journey of two musical souls, incorporating classics from the Great American Songbook, as well as other works, such as a Rodgers & Hammerstein set from “South Pacific” and “Carousel.”

“We’re theater animals,” Patinkin says of himself and LuPone. “We both love the theater, and we deeply love performing. I think it’s where we both feel the most alive.”

It was in the midst of another theater production, “Compulsion,” that Patinkin received the script for a television pilot based on an Israeli series called “Prisoners of War” (its original title was “Hatufim”). The producers, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa of “24,” wanted Patinkin badly enough that they were willing to work around his crazy schedule. The pilot of “Homeland” would shoot in Charlotte, N.C., and, in order to accommodate Patinkin, who was doing tech rehearsals for “Compulsion” at the Public Theatre in New York, they flew him back and forth between New York and Charlotte.

“It couldn’t have been a worse calendar,” says Patinkin, who had not seen the original Israeli series. “But I read the pilot script and gave it to the smartest people in my world — my wife and my dearest friend — and said, ‘Tell me if I’m crazy, but this is one of the finest things I’ve ever read.’ ”

“Homeland,” which recently garnered two Golden Globes — best television series (drama) and best actress in a television series (drama) — is a riveting, serialized thriller: In post-9/11 America,  rogue CIA agent Carrie Matheson (Claire Danes) suspects that U.S. Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), who returns to a hero’s welcome after eight years as an Iraqi prisoner of war, has been “turned” and is now a threat to the nation. The agency largely ignores Carrie’s suspicions and her erratic choices even threaten to jeopardize Saul Berenson (Patinkin’s character), her wise mentor and longtime friend.

“It’s a very complicated series of relationships,” he says. “I have never been in a piece where I’ve been on the edge of my seat waiting with bated breath for the next script to come in. I’ve told the writers, ‘Don’t tell me what’s going to happen, whether I’m a good guy or a bad guy.’ In either case, the modus operandi is that I believe in what I’m doing.”

Berenson is Jewish, as are many of the characters Patinkin has portrayed in his long career.

“Being a Jew is who I am,” he says.  It informs every aspect of who I am.”
   

“An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin” plays March 20-25 at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. For more information, please visit jewishjournal.com.

In bed with Roy Cohn


The notorious attorney Roy Cohn (Barry Pearl), onetime counsel for Sen. Joseph McCarthy, deals with his demons in Joan Beber’s surreal play, “Hunger: In Bed With Roy Cohn,” currently running at the Odyssey Theatre. Beber, who is having her first production in Los Angeles at age 78, places Cohn in a state of limbo, a purgatory of the mind, where he is nurtured by a sexy maid (Presciliana Esparolini) and haunted by significant figures from his past, including his mother, Dora (Cheryl David); hotel heir G. David Schine (Tom Galup); Ronald Reagan (David Sessions); Barbara Walters (Liza de Weerd), who remained a loyal friend because Cohn had once helped her father; and convicted spy Julius Rosenberg (Jon Levenson).

Cohn was brilliant, handsome — at least in his youth — loyal to his close friends, and, reportedly, could be extremely charming. He was also known as a merciless prosecutor and litigator, a bigot, a snob and a closeted gay man living in denial. He even denied to his death that he had AIDS, the disease that killed him in 1986.

He is best remembered as lead counsel during the Army-McCarthy hearings. The Army had accused Cohn of exerting pressure to obtain special treatment for Schine, who had been drafted. Cohn and McCarthy countered that Schine was being held hostage in retaliation for McCarthy’s inquiry into suspected Communist infiltration of the Army. It was also widely rumored, though never proven, that Schine and Cohn were lovers, but Schine subsequently lived a heterosexual life, married and had six children. 

Prior to his work with McCarthy, Cohn had been a prosecutor in the 1951 espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and claimed to have been instrumental in having the couple executed. Ethel’s brother later admitted that he had lied when testifying against the Rosenbergs, and a co-defendant in the case stated after 18 years in prison that Julius had been a spy, but Ethel had not. 

Beber learned years after the Rosenberg executions that her father, a Republican activist in Omaha, Neb., wanted to help Ethel, who was his distant cousin, but had to keep it very quiet to protect his career as a lawyer. He tried to get then-Sen. Dwight Griswold of Nebraska to intervene with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, to no avail.

“He also formed a committee with other people in Omaha who felt that the Rosenbergs were being targeted,” Beber said. “Then he went to visit Ethel in prison about two weeks before she died. He asked her what he could do for her, and she said, ‘Tell my sons to change their name.’ ”

Beber said she knew little about Cohn or the Red Scare until she began researching the Rosenberg case 20 years ago for her play “Ethel Sings.”

“I was very intrigued that this guy who was Jewish would be so instrumental in causing the death of the Rosenbergs, and I couldn’t understand how a person with any kind of conscience could do something like that, especially someone who was Jewish. I was intrigued with that, [and] I wanted to know if there was a reason behind it.”

Beber, who is Jewish, said that once she began working on her current endeavor, she watched several dramatic depictions of Cohn.

“I always saw him portrayed as kind of a one-sided person and just evil to the core,” she observed. “I wanted to see another side of him, and then I started reading many, many books.

“The more I read, the more I realized what he was up against growing up … being gay in such a repressed society, so I wanted to present another aspect of him.”

Beber’s play, though not strictly a musical, has characters bursting into song and dance, with choreography by Kay Cole.

“I loved the fact that [Beber] was very daring and very theatrical,” said director Jules Aaron, who described his close collaboration with the playwright.

“We developed several different things about the show, which are pivotal. I think we both wanted to understand why [Cohn] was who he was, without being sentimental or sympathetic toward him, but we wanted people to connect enough with him that they would stay with the play. That’s the trick when you have a Richard III, or someone who’s something of a villain in history. You want the audience to have some feelings about the character.”

But Aaron didn’t want Pearl to sentimentalize the character.

“I kept saying to [Pearl], ‘You don’t need the audience to sympathize with you. Keep him strong.’ ”

The director feels that the key to Cohn is his relationship with his devouring mother, Dora, who came from a wealthy background.

“If he had had another mother, would he have been different when he got older, since we’re sort of products of our family, and, of course, our social situation? That, to me, was the main factor in presenting someone who was a product of, and I don’t mean this in a sexual way, an incestuous relationship with his mother.”

From Pearl’s perspective, Dora is someone who keeps her son dependent on her, even as she is destroying him.

“She’s like the ultimate stage mother. There are moments when I say, ‘Why do you treat me this way; and my dad (who was a respected judge), you always put him down.’ At the same time, I ask ‘What should I do, Mama?’ 

“I’m learning from her. I get my bigotry from her. She has a speech about ‘every wop and spic,’ you know, she goes on and on.”

Pearl continued, “She was an elitist, and [Cohn] learned a lot. He says, ‘I was born at the wrong time to the wrong mom.’ She had a huge influence on him. That wasn’t very much explored in any of the pieces that I saw, or any of the history.”

Pearl also described Cohn as a self-hating Jew who denies his Jewish background and, at one point in the play, refers to Jews as “kikes.”

But, Pearl said, the playwright does explore the possibility of redemption by creating a younger, more innocent version of Cohn. This alter ego is a graceful figure, continually beckoning to the older Roy.

“The young Roy, throughout the play, prods the audience and prods the older Roy to ‘get going’ and ‘get up and move ahead,’ Beber explained. “He tries to show him the way, the potential for what he could have been, but the audience is left not knowing which direction he chooses, and whether he comes to any important realizations about how he has lived.”

In an aside, she added, “I think he doesn’t, but that’s beside the point.”

“Hunger: In Bed With Roy Cohn” continues through March 11 at the Odyssey Theatre.

“Hunger: In Bed With Roy Cohn” runs Saturday, January 21 – Sunday, March 11, 2012 at the Odyssey Theatre (2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90025).  Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.; Sundays at 2:00 p.m.  Tickets for Friday are $25.00; Saturday and Sunday are $30.00.  For more information, please call (310) 477-2055 or visit www.odysseytheatre.com.

Multimedia show explores Gershwin’s genius


Rather than compose “Porgy and Bess,” what if George Gershwin had instead scored the opera “Dybbuk and Leah”?

Though the latter title is imaginary, Gershwin did start in on a Dybbuk-themed work, only to learn that the opera rights to the Yiddish play by S. Ansky had been tied down earlier by an Italian composer. Only then did Gershwin turn his talents to a “Negro,” rather than Jewish, folk opera.

This bit of musical arcanum comes courtesy of Rodney Greenberg, a prolific British producer, director, writer, pianist and historian with an encyclopedic grasp of the life and music of Gershwin.

Greenberg will bring his multimedia show, “The Glory of Gershwin,” to America for the first time with a one-night performance on Oct. 14 at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

“Growing up in Manchester, I heard a Gershwin record as a kid and was hooked immediately,” Greenberg recounted in a trans-Atlantic phone call. His father was a piano teacher, who set his 3-year-old son on a high chair to start practicing his scales.

“Gershwin’s glory was that he was a genius as both a classical and a popular composer, who was equally at home on Broadway and at Carnegie Hall,” Greenberg said.

Greenberg will illustrate the composer’s two sides through his piano interpretations, complemented by his historical collection of Gershwin slides, vintage films, piano roll recordings, music clips, audio tracks, videos of Judy Garland and others performing the master’s songs, anecdotes and even an audience singalong.

“Rodney is hilarious, skilled and passionate,” said Dale Bell, a long-time collaborator, whose Santa Monica-based Media Policy Center is presenting Greenberg’s American appearance.

“The Glory of Gershwin” is based on Greenberg’s book, “George Gershwin” (Phaidon, 2008), and follows the composer’s brilliant career from his 1898 birth in Brooklyn as Jacob Gershovitz to his death at 38 from a brain tumor.

As a youth, his parents took him to the thriving New York Yiddish theater and to synagogue, where he absorbed different Jewish musical styles.

Such youthful influences affected his later compositions, Greenberg said, with musicologists tracing popular songs such as “ ’S Wonderful” to Jewish melodies.

Gershwin’s first big break came in 1919, when Al Jolson, then at the height of his career, made the composer’s “Swanee” part of his repertoire. The song by the 21-year-old sold an incredible 2 million records plus uncounted song sheets.

Despite his fame and immense popularity, Gershwin was not immune to attacks by anti-Semites, foremost Henry Ford in his virulent weekly newspaper, The Dearborn Independent. Joining in were composer and critic Virgil Thomson, who referred to Gershwin’s “gefilte fish orchestration,” and English composer Constant Lambert, who charged that “the Jews have stolen the Negroes’ thunder.”

Greenberg’s show also will pay tribute to Ira Gershwin, George’s older brother, collaborator and lyricist, who for most of his life resided in Beverly Hills.

Greenberg is a veteran of 46 years in show business, on stage, radio and television, who has produced and directed some 300 TV musicals in Europe and America as a regular on BBC in Britain and PBS in America. He won an Emmy for the NBC “Live From Studio 8H” series and produced 40 segments of the BBC’s “Masterclass” series.

During his television career, Greenberg has collaborated with such musical greats as Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, André Previn, George Solti, Michael Tilson Thomas, Yehudi Menuhin and Isaac Stern.

The one-night performance of “The Glory of Gershwin” will start at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 14 at the Broad Stage of the Santa Monica Performing Arts Center, 1310 11th St.

For information and tickets, phone (310) 434-3005 or visit www.smc.edu/eventsinfo.

Two Yiddishe Boys and a Bissel of Berlin


About a dozen years ago, actor Mike Burstyn auditioned in New York for the role of Al Jolson in the national touring company of the musical “Jolson.” While waiting for a decision, he flew home to Los Angeles and on landing at LAX decided to stop by the nearby Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary and visit the grave of the legendary jazz singer.

Burstyn stopped at the statue of Jolson, which shows the singer kneeling and with arms outstretched as if eternally serenading both his mammy and the cars whizzing by on the 405, for some private conversation.

“I had a brief, if one-sided, chat with Jolson, and promised him that if I got the part, I would do him justice,” Burstyn recalled during an interview. “A few days later, I got the role.”

If the sculptured Jolson was good to Burstyn, Burstyn has been good to Jolson ever since. The beat goes on, and Burstyn is again bringing his idol to life in the musical “Jolson at the Winter Garden,” this time at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood.

The Winter Garden in New York was the site of some of Jolson’s great Sunday concerts, when actors and musicians from other Broadway shows gathered to hear the master at the height of his career, in the 1920s and ’30s.

It was in 1927 that Jolson made movie history by appearing in the industry’s first talking picture, “The Jazz Singer.” The plot of the path-breaking film resembled Jolson’s own life story as a foreign-born cantor’s son, destined for the same career, who instead became America’s highest-paid and most famous entertainer.

“If you take Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland and Elvis Presley and rolled them into one, you’d get an idea of Jolson’s fame in his heyday,” Burstyn enthused.

Burstyn, bursting with energy at 66, was born in New York, the son of Yiddish theater stars Pesach Burstein and Lillian Lux, and was destined for a show biz career from birth.

He made his theatrical debut, in Yiddish, at age 3, heard his first Jolson record at 11 and was instantly smitten. Like legions of earlier fans, he became an instant Jolson impersonator.

As Burstyn grew up into a professional performer, “I came to channel Jolson to the point where old-timers in the audience were sure I was lip-syncing Jolson’s recorded songs, when actually I was doing the singing,” he said.

In his upcoming show, Burstyn will omit one aspect of the Jolson persona — his blackface routines.

“What once was a century-old theatrical convention — Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby and Shirley Temple all performed in blackface — would be rightly seen as demeaning stereotyping today,” Burstyn observed.

In a multifaceted career on stage, screen and television, Burstyn has performed in eight languages, and is as well known as an Israel movie star as for his stage roles as Mayer Rothschild, patriarch of the banking family, and gangster Meyer Lansky.

Mike Burstyn poses with an Al Jolson statue at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary. Photo by Cyona Burstyn

The new musical will be a kind of homecoming for Jolson, too. In the decades before Jolson’s death in 1950, he maintained homes in Toluca Lake and Beverly Hills, and later accepted the exalted position of mayor of Encino.

The cast of “Jolson at the Winter Garden” includes actors Jacqueline Bayne, Laura Hodos and Wayne LeGette, a live band and three back-up singers. Bill Castellino is the director, writer and choreographer, and producer Dan Israely (with Zahava Atzmon) was instrumental in getting the show on the road.

Included in the repertoire are such Jolson favorites as “Swanee,” “Toot Toot Tootsie,” “Sonny Boy” and, of course, “My Mammy.”

The show will run Sept. 6-25, with the official opening night Sept. 8 and including Wednesday and weekend matinees, at the El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

For tickets, ranging from $35-$60, call (877) 733-7529 or visit elportaltheatre.com

Also coming up for musical theater fans is “Cabaret” as the season opener for the Reprise Theatre Company at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse.

The John Kander-Fred Ebb classic of nightclubs, Nazis and non-Aryans in early 1930s Berlin runs Sept. 13-25 and includes weekend matinees.

Al Jolson

Director and choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge notes that “Cabaret” is not only a great musical but also serves as a cautionary tale for our time. “It reminds us to pay close attention to what’s going on in our country right now. It’s a show that warns us to keep our eyes open to a very volatile political climate.”

For information and tickets, call (310) 825-2101 or visit reprise.org.
 
Following a recent film on Sholem Aleichem comes a play exploring the works of another great Yiddish writer in “The Stories of Isaac Leib Peretz,” running Sept. 10-Oct. 9 at the Ruby Theatre at The Complex in Hollywood.

Matt Chait is the storyteller (and producer), with violinist Lior Kaminetsky performing the klezmer-flavored musical score.

Call (323) 960-7780 or visit plays411.com/peretz for more details, and read a more extended article on the play in The Journal’s next issue.

C’mon, Amanda Green, ‘Bring It On’


At one point in “Bring It On: The Musical,” inspired by the rival cheerleading film of the same name, Bridget, the team’s chubby mascot, gets some moxie from a pep talk about a boy she likes.

“Why walk around like you’re made of asbestos,” a friend sings, “when [he] loves your eyes, your thighs, and your breast-is?”

The lyricist with the audacity to rhyme asbestos with breast-is is Amanda Green, who penned the show’s songs with Lin-Manuel Miranda (“In the Heights”) and composer Tom Kitt (Pulitzer Prize winner for “Next to Normal”). Their show will arrive at the Ahmanson Theatre on Nov. 11.

The daughter of legendary Broadway lyricist Adolph Green, Amanda Green has a resume that highlights her wicked wit. She earned a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle nomination for her first musical, “Up the Creek Without a Paddle,” which she describes, alternately, as “a West Coast version of ‘Sex and the City,’ ” and “basically a gynecological exam set to music.” She recalled that her late father, who shared her bawdy sense of humor, was particularly tickled by a ditty from that 2000 show, which she describes as “a filthy, unprintable song.”

Then there was the musical version of the cult film “High Fidelity,” which Green collaborated on with Kitt, her classmate from the famed BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop; and “For the Love of Tiffany: A Wifetime Original Musical,” which she recounts as a “wild romp that skewered Lifetime TV movies, in which I also acted, playing a triple amputee German housekeeper with a feather duster in my stump.”

When director and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler invited Green to work on “Bring It On,” however, she didn’t set out to parody the pompom set. “I wanted to have fun with this world, but I wasn’t interested in clichés,” she said.

Green began by rewatching the 2000 film, which stars Kirsten Dunst and Eliza Dushku. With book writer Jeff Whitty (“Avenue Q”) and the other collaborators, she then helped to create an entirely new story and characters for the show.

“Bring It On: The Musical” evolved into the story of Campbell, the captain of a cheerleading squad at a lily-white school who is determined to bring her team to victory at a national competition. Her classmates include Bridget, who wears the team’s ungainly parrot-mascot costume; Skylar, aka “Bitter Bitch Barbie,” who has a sidekick named Kylar; and Eva, Campbell’s worshipful admirer, who may or may not be reminiscent of the duplicitous villainess in “All About Eve.”

But then Campbell is transferred to a more urban school that doesn’t even have a cheerleading squad; she struggles to fit in and to convince the queen bee of the hip-hop dance crew to compete against her old team. Life lessons and acrobatics ensue; when “Bring It On” premiered at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta in early 2011, critics described the cheerleading numbers as almost epically athletic.

“I am blown away by Amanda’s work, and it’s been a tremendous experience getting to work with her again,” said Kitt, who asked Green to collaborate with him on “High Fidelity” after meeting her at BMI. “When I first met her, I didn’t know right away that she was the daughter of Adolph Green. She does have this very original and unique talent for lyric writing — this incredibly witty voice mixed with a real sense of craft.

“The worlds of competitive cheerleading and high school are ripe for hilarious and poignant moments, and Amanda’s lyrics are dead on in terms of paying tribute to and also celebrating and laughing at the world of adolescents,” Kitt added of “Bring It On.” “The way Amanda puts things we all feel into unexpected comic writing makes the laugh even bigger, because the audience doesn’t see it coming.”

Green, who is in her 40s, had no cheerleading experience to draw upon when she began working on the show two years ago. While growing up on New York’s Upper West Side, she attended the prestigious High School of Performing Arts — which she said was really like the school in the film, “Fame,” minus the dancing atop taxis — before transferring to a private school her sophomore year. “There wasn’t even a football team, never mind a cheerleading squad,” Green said. “That just wasn’t part of my idiom.”

For “Bring It On,” she didn’t want to draw upon the popular-culture image of “the cheerleader as a bimbo, and ‘rah-rah,’ stuck up and vain,” she said. “I really wanted to delve into their world and understand who they are.”

To this end, Green read books about the subject, interviewed cheerleaders and attended their competitions. “What I found was that they are these incredible athletes, and incredibly dedicated; it’s a very hard sport and what they do is very admirable,” she said. “So I approached it like we were going to have fun with this world, but not from the outside in.”

Amanda Green, co-lyricist of “Bring It On: The Musical.”

As Green began writing lyrics for the show’s approximately 23 songs, which merge pop and hip-hop with more traditional musical theater sounds, she found that “each character had their own voice. As a writer, I love people who have an odd way of speaking or a particular rhythm or vocabulary, so I try to write for each character and how they would express themselves.”

The fictional Campbell is sure of herself, but not without some undercurrents of insecurity, while Skylar both embodies and lampoons stereotypes. “She’s almost nice in her complete bitchiness, because she has such a commitment to it,” Green said. “It’s expressed in lyrics just because she is so unapologetic and gleeful about it.”

In one song, Skylar recalls her own experiences of trying out for the cheerleading squad: “I felt so belittled — man, they put me on the rack. And now that I’m a senior, this is my chance to give back! I’ll uphold the great tradition with these young lives on my watch. Let’s set the stage, I’ve come of age, to be a raging, castrating bee-yotch!”

Green, who laughs easily in a phone conversation from her home on the Upper West Side, has something of a musical theater pedigree. Her father, the son of Hungarian Jewish immigrants, and his longtime collaborator, Betty Comden, created some of Hollywood and Broadway’s greatest hits, writing lyrics for such musicals as “On the Town” and “Billion Dollar Baby,” as well as screenplays and songs for movies like “Singin’ in the Rain.” He met Amanda’s mother, the Tony-winning actress Phyllis Newman, when she understudied for Judy Holliday in his musical “Bells Are Ringing.” Amanda Green recalls her father’s story about how Jule Styne, after a creative argument, stormed out of the room, then stormed back in, naked and dancing a jig.

The “Bring It On” collaboration was somewhat more cordial, she quipped. The production, however, is itself facing a complaint, filed in early August by the Writers Guild of America, accusing the movie’s producers of exploiting the rights of the film’s screenwriter, Jessica Bendinger, by producing a new musical based on the story, according to The New York Times.  In a statement, a spokesperson for the show said, “As a policy, the producers of ‘Bring It On: The Musical’ will not comment on legal matters. The national tour will begin [preview] performances in Los Angeles on Oct. 30, 2011 as scheduled.”  A WGA spokesperson declined to comment on the matter.

For her part, Green said she had no information about the issue.

Talking of her heritage, she said, “Judaism was always part of our cultural heritage; we were always very proud of that,” she said, adding that her childhood home was also a meeting place for luminaries such as Styne, Cy Coleman and Leonard Bernstein, who took turns serenading one another at the piano. When she performed the starring role of Maria in a summer-camp production of Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” the maestro himself sent her a congratulatory opening-night telegram.

Green studied theater and English at Brown University and then attended the Circle in the Square Theatre School, initially aspiring to become a performer rather than a lyricist. She explained, “You don’t compete with your parents, without even consciously saying, ‘I’m not going to do what they do.’ “ And so she wrote her own songs and sang in cabarets—and even went to Nashville to write country music, “because I always had an offbeat sense of humor that didn’t lend itself to straight pop songs,” she said. “But when I enrolled in the BMI musical theater workshop, that’s where it clicked for me. I was like, ‘This is where I belong.’ I just understood the genre, because I grew up with it; I get it, I love it, and I can be as eccentric as I want to be, as long as it serves the character.”

For more information, please visit centertheatregroup.org.

China’s obsession with Hitler


A Chinese Hitler, dressed like a mall cop, mopes in an underground bunker in 1945 as his empire is collapsing around him. But it’s not all bad news. “My stomach hurts, and it’s bigger. I’m pregnant!” Hitler exclaims, stroking himself mindlessly.

“Hitler’s Belly,” a hit play currently touring China, answers the eternal question of what the world’s most notorious dictator looks like when portrayed by an overweight Chinese man pretending to be pregnant. It mixes snippets from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” old newsreel footage, slapstick with Chinese sensibilities, and an extended fart joke. As Hitler prepares to give birth, Chaplin—also a character in the play—wanders the bunker, impersonating Hitler to his underlings. Chaplin spars with Hitler, and then everyone raps. Genocide is not mentioned.

Chaplin made his famous 1940 satire, in which he plays both a Jewish barber and Adenoid Hynkel, the blabbering dictator of Tomania, in part because of the actor’s similarity to Hitler: They each sported a distinctive mustache, they were born four days apart in April 1889, and they shared a love for Richard Wagner’s music. In his autobiography, Chaplin’s son, Charles Chaplin, recalled his father saying: “He’s the madman, I’m the comic. But it could have been the other way around.”

Meng Jinghui, the play’s shaggy-haired director, first saw “The Great Dictator” in 1984, he told me, and he thought it would be fascinating to watch Chaplin interact with Hitler. But he didn’t begin work on his play until he saw a glint of Hitler in his favorite leading man, Liu Xiaoye. “I was wearing a hat and put on a little mustache,” said Liu, who plays Hitler, Chaplin, and Eva Braun, often switching between characters mid-sentence. Meng recalls: “He put black on his finger and put it up here, and said hey, don’t I look like Hitler? And I said, hey, you can be Hitler.”

One of China’s best-known theater personalities, Meng has enjoyed a long string of successes adapting foreign concepts to Chinese audiences. He brought Rent to China as the story of a missing real-estate tycoon. “We don’t have bohemia, we don’t have so many drug users or gay people, and we don’t do threesomes,” he told NPR in 2009. “So, we use your structure, and we put our lives into it.” Unlike “The Great Dictator,” “Hitler’s Belly” declines to tackle questions of Judaism, focusing instead on issues relevant to a Chinese audience: corruption in the Ministry of Railways, lies from the government, and the difficulty of affording a house. Many artists prefer to satirize the present in China by criticizing the past.

“The most difficult part of the acting for me was moving between history and politics,” said Liu. To announce the birth of his son, Hitler holds a press conference. He tells the Chinese journalists in attendance that the pregnancy is a “miracle,” a loaded term because it mocks the government’s response to a recent deadly train crash—after a bullet train derailed last July, killing scores, a Railway Ministry spokesman called the rescue of one child survivor “a miracle,” invoking the ire of many. This draws a healthy laugh from the audience.

The play, which has toured Shanghai, Beijing, and will be in Guangzhou in October, has played almost exclusively to packed houses, Meng said. On the performance’s last night in Beijing in early August, the theater was filled with people in their 20s and 30s, constantly laughing and clapping at the satire and the slapstick, according to the director. Liu portrays a bumbling, melancholic side of the dictator, who shouts “Heil Myself!” whenever anyone salutes him. He does a gentle Chaplin, and his Eva Braun flashes her chest to Hitler whenever she gets excited.

In China, Hitler isn’t known for the Holocaust, but rather for achieving social stability with a very high human cost. “In general, they refer to him as very lihai, very hardcore, someone who is strong, powerful,” said Rabbi Nussin Rodin, a Chabad representative in Beijing. “You can be strong and powerful and good, and strong and powerful and bad. It’s weird. I don’t know what to say.” With China’s regime facing growing internal criticism for mishandling any number of things, from the escalating price of fuel to train safety, Hitler’s perceived image as a strong leader who was able to maintain social stability makes him an attractive figure to many.

Outside the Beijing theater, which is perched above a karaoke parlor in a wealthy part of town, college student Liu Mingyu said that he came because of the director and thought the play was funny. “There’s nothing good about him,” Liu said of the Hitler character, “except that he’s strong-willed, that’s the only advantage he’s got. But in general he’s a bad guy, I suppose.”

Some Chinese sympathy toward Hitler is fueled by a persistent—and false—rumor claiming that when Hitler was an impoverished young student in Vienna, he was taken in by a Chinese family named Zhang. “Looking at Hitler From a Different Angle,” an article published last month on the website of the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, reported that during Hitler’s youth, a Chinese family gave him “Oriental style selfless help,” and that because of this he had a “warm and close feeling toward China.” Many Chinese believe that Hitler had secretly supported China during World War II, despite Germany’s alignment with China’s wartime oppressor, Japan. Hitler is well-known in China; rural residents especially don’t necessarily see him as a sign of evil. Olivia Kraef, a Beijing-based sinologist from Germany, related a story of a recent trip in China, where someone wanted to drink a toast to Hitler with her. “That was the first thing he came up with when he met me,” she said. “Hitler, soccer.”

Bizarrely, support for Hitler does not in any way suggest disdain for Jews. On the contrary: Chinese people on the whole are very approving of Judaism and Jewish culture, seeing Jews as experts in both moneymaking and child rearing, with a long history and a strong tradition of education. And, unsurprisingly in a country where Mao’s all-seeing portrait still hangs from Tiananmen Square, Chinese tend to shy away from comparisons between their homegrown contender for the title of history’s greatest butcher. “I don’t think there can be any comparison between Hitler and Mao,” said Meng. “Mao’s biggest spirit was to serve the people; Mao loved the people. That’s the biggest difference.”

Isaac Stone Fish is a Beijing-based reporter for Newsweek and the Daily Beast. This article originally appeared on Tablet Magazine, tabletmag.com.

S.F. Jewish theater to close after 35 years


A 35-year-old Jewish theater in San Francisco will close this year at the end of its new season.

The Jewish Theatre San Francisco, also known as A Traveling Jewish Theatre, had financial problems that were exacerbated by the global financial crisis.

“We lost over 50 percent of our funding all at once,” Executive Director Sara Schwartz Geller told the San Francisco Chronicle. She added that the decision to close was influenced as well by the question of “whether there is still need for a specifically Jewish theater in the Bay Area.”

The theater was founded as a touring ensemble with a collective leadership in 1978, premiering with a staging of “Coming From a Great Distance,” followed by “The Last Yiddish Poet.” Transitioning in the 1990s to a more traditional format, and settling into its own theater building, its debt grew to $400,000 by 2008.

The final season will include premieres of “In the Maze of Our Own Lives,” by theater co-founder Corey Fischer; “Wrestling Jerusalem,” a solo show by the theater’s former artistic director, Aaron Davidman, about a progressive Bay Area Jew in Israel; and readings of a work about Grace Paley by co-founder Naomi Newman.

Performance series pays tribute to Boyle Heights’ cultural, artistic legacy


When Canter’s Deli first opened in Los Angeles, it was not at its now-famous location on Fairfax Avenue, but in Boyle Heights. And though Canter’s and most of the neighborhood’s Jews have long since deserted Boyle Heights, it was forever touched by the culture of the Jewish community that once called it home. Later waves of immigration brought Japanese, Latino and Russian immigrants to the area, giving Boyle Heights a unique and vibrant ethnic vibe.

This summer, Grand Performances, which is celebrating its 25th year of bringing free, outdoor summer entertainment to downtown Los Angeles’ California Plaza, has decided to celebrate Boyle Heights with a cultural series highlighting the heritage of the Jews, Latinos and Japanese who have called it home.

Boyle Heights is “a neighborhood where real people live and work, where Catholic altars, Shinto shrines and [the Breed Street] shul are found within blocks of one another,” Grand Performances’ Director of Programming Leigh Ann Hahn said.

Hahn stresses that bringing people to Boyle Heights is part of Grand Performances’ “commitment to fulfill the best possible roles we can within this ever-changing city we call home.”

“My hope is that those who live in Boyle Heights will be proud of their neighborhood, and that those who aren’t as familiar will want to explore.” 

The series will kick off June 18 with an evening put together by Tongue and Groove founder Conrad Romo.  Tongue and Groove, a monthly fixture at Hollywood’s Hotel Cafe, presents poetry, spoken word, short stories and music.

Rabbi Shmuel Marcus of Chabad of Cypress in Orange County will bring his highly popular “Traveling Pickle Factory.”

The Boyle Heights evening will be a welcome trip down memory lane for Romo, who was born and raised in Boyle Heights.  As a teenager, he worked at the Hollenbeck Home to earn money to pay for school. To honor his ’hood, Romo has brought together a diverse group of performers from Jewish, Latino and Asian backgrounds who will be “paying respect — tribute — to Boyle Heights.” From the Mexican American band Ollin, whose members, among their varied repertoire,  perform a klezmer-influenced song called “Boyle Heights Boogie,” to Jewish visual artist Simone Gad, who was raised in Boyle Heights by her Holocaust-survivor parents, it promises to be a fast-paced mix of arts and culture.

The series will feature some more unorthodox fare as well. On July 21, Rabbi Shmuel Marcus of Chabad

of Cypress in Orange County will bring his highly popular “Traveling Pickle Factory” to California Plaza for an evening of history and a lesson on pickle making that’s sure to appeal to all who love a finely fermented cucumber. Hahn believes that the pickle is actually quite important. “The traveling pickle factory is … a reflection of my belief that food is key to the building of civilization and that although we don’t all like the same things – like music, culinary traditions illustrate how similar every cultural community is to another.”

Marcus doesn’t doubt the power of the pickle either, as he’s seen it firsthand. “We had more people at our kosher pickle-making than I had at my Yom Kippur service, so I knew something was going on.”  Rather than wonder why his congregants were more interested in pickles than prayer, Marcus decided to embrace the dill deliverance. He’s visited hundreds of places over the past few years, bringing the joy of the pickle to the masses.

Randy and Scott Rodarte are the Band Ollin.

Marcus describes the evening as a “very fun adult educational workshop. The unique coolness about the program is that …we did tremendous research on the significance, on the history, on the origins of the (kosher pickle).” Marcus believes that learning about keeping kosher is more relevant today than ever. “The concept of kosher goes well with all audiences, especially today. Now, we’re super conscious of what we eat.” 

Especially exciting for Marcus is the chance to present his Pickle Factory evening in honor of a locale like Boyle Heights. “There’s a woman here [in Orange County] who runs my senior program … she’s from Boyle Heights.  Everyone of a certain generation that I meet, they’re all from Boyle Heights. It’s very, very special.”

Also on tap for the summer series will be an evening with showman and humorist Charles Phoenix on June 24 celebrating the city of Los Angeles; a special musical fundraiser featuring Kinnara Taiko on July 9; a multimedia lecture with USC professor Josh Kun about Boyle Heights’ Phillips Music Co. on Aug. 4; a concert featuring L.A. singers Phranc and Exene on Aug. 20; and a closing show: “A Night at the Phillips Music Co.” on Aug. 27.

Performances all are free and take place at California Plaza downtown. For more information visit www.grandperformances.org.

David Mamet’s political manifesto explains the reformed liberal playwright


Let me say right away that I am an ardent and devoted fan of David Mamet. I have only a very small collection of movies on DVD, but two of them are “The

Spanish Prisoner” and “House of Games,” both of which I’ve watched repeatedly. My wife, Ann, and I were in the audience for Mamet’s production of “Boston Marriage” at the Geffen and again when he produced a magic-and-memoir show featuring Ricky Jay. 

A few years ago, while serving as president of PEN Center USA West, I placed a call to Mamet’s office on a point of PEN business. When my secretary, Judy Woo, announced his return call, my heart raced — and I told him so. It was a high point of my literary life to speak with one of the Immortals on the phone.

But I fear that Mamet is no fan of people like me, whom he dismisses as “the Left” in the pages of “The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture” (Sentinel: $27.95). “The Good Causes of the Left may generally be compared to NASCAR,” he announces. “[T]hey offer the diversion of watching things go excitingly around in a circle, getting nowhere.”

Put “House of Games” on pause — this is Mamet’s political manifesto, and he is ready to unburden himself on a long list of hot-button issues that are handled far more subtly, if at all, in his plays and movies.

Much of what is written in “The Secret Knowledge” will be off-putting to liberals — or, as Mamet puts it, “the Liberals” or “the Left.” (He capitalizes lots of words and phrases: “Family,” “the Black Neighborhood,” “Machine Politics,” “Old Rich Guys,” “Social Eugenicism” and much else, although I did not catch the reason why.) “The Liberal young are taught to shun work,” he insists. “The philosophy of the Left is not, in fact, a love of, but a rejection of wisdom. And it is contrary to common sense.” And, of course: “The State of Israel is, in itself, an incurable affront to the Left, for it is a demonstration of the possibility of choice.” He even comments on the dress code of the Left Coast.

“The young on the Westside of Los Angeles dress themselves in jeans worn, sanded, and razored to resemble something a six-month castaway might crawl ashore in,” observes Mamet, who hails from Chicago but now spends a lot of time among us. “Why? They are trying to purchase a charade of victimization, as the ethos of the Liberal West holds that these victims are the ones of worth.”

Although “The Secret Knowledge” is a book about secular politics and culture, it is deeply rooted in Mamet’s Jewish upbringing and lifelong study. Significantly, he acknowledges Rabbi Mordecai Finley and a couple of Jewish media celebrities on conservative talk radio — Jewish Journal columnist Dennis Prager and Michael Medved — as sources of inspiration. Sometimes, however, he is not entirely clear about how his Jewishness and his arch-conservatism fit together. “I never questioned my tribal assumption that Capitalism was bad,” he writes of his early years, and I assume that “tribal” is a code word for “Jewish.” But he insists that he has put such childish things aside, and now he sees Judaism in a very different light.

“Why would any American Jew wish to become a ‘citizen of the world’?” he writes. “This fantasy is akin to one who believes in the benevolence of Nature. Anyone ever lost in the wild knows that Nature wants you dead.”

He speaks plainly about what he labels as the “first principles,” which he finds so compelling. “All people are venal by nature,” he declares. He quotes President Barack Obama for the proposition that “[t]he individual at some point, must be able to say, ‘I have enough money,’ ” and then asks: “But will Mr. Obama, out of office, say this of himself, and of the vast riches he will enjoy? One must doubt it.” He insists government cannot change human nature: “Those of us in show-business spend our lives trying to understand, subvert and predict the actions of the audience,” he writes. “It cannot be done.” Remarkably, he even argues that “[a] man the bulk of whose income is taxed has less incentive toward monogamy.”

Mamet’s conviction about the venality of human nature leads him to distrust all office-holders. “Thomas Jefferson was an adulterer; so was every President, most likely,” he insists. “That’s why men get into politics; it gives them power.” Rather than government, he looks to “community” for the survival of civilization: “Our task in life is not to guess which lever to pull, but to learn to determine, in the wild, as it were, how to support ourselves,” Mamet declares. “Is this not a return to savagery? Not at all. It is a return to community, for in the free market, success comes only from the ability to supply the needs of others.”

To his credit, Mamet is consistent. He opposes the bailout of what he calls “the hag-ridden” auto industry and is willing to take the consequences of tough love in the marketplace: “In a rational, which is to say free-market world, this situation would self-correct: the public would cease to buy a product which no one cared to make attractive, efficient, or affordable, and the business would change or go broke.”

My own take on the world according to David Mamet is that his earnest (and faintly survivalist) prescriptions simply do not scale up. As we saw in the economic meltdown of 2008, the richest and most powerful people and corporations in the world were happy to take taxpayer money to preserve their wealth and dominance, and I suspect that they are also perfectly happy to let the motley crew of Tea Party members, libertarians, Evangelical Christians and miscellaneous rightwing activists talk about “first principles” while doing what they can to put and keep a corporate-friendly Congress in power. If you don’t have a job and can’t afford health insurance, however, you are on your own.

Let me give one concrete example. At one point, Mamet trashes Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a man who was capable of reducing my Jewish immigrant grandparents to sentimental tears: “In an attempt to Do Good for All, he dismantled the free market, and so, the economy and saddled our country not only with ‘social programs,’ but with the deeper, unconscious legacy of belief in Social Programs, irrespective of their effectiveness.”

A few pages later, he complains that “[t]he State of California sentences the farmers of the Central Valley to drought, and their farms to destruction, because a small fish called the delta smelt has been declared endangered.” What he skips is the fact that dams and canals of the Central Valley Project began under FDR, and the megafarms wouldn’t exist at all if water hadn’t been provided by Big Government.

But this is not the place — and I am not the person — to debate Mamet on the merits of his political philosophy point by point. To judge “The Secret Knowledge” as a reading experience, I found it occasionally aggravating, but always provocative and impossible to put down, and I was fascinated to find out what one of my favorite directors and playwrights thinks about the world in which we all live.

For that reason, it will not surprise Mamet to learn that my favorite passages in “The Secret Knowledge” were the anecdotes about a Glenn Curtiss 1915 seaplane, not because of its intended lesson about how the economy should work, but because it gave me an insight into the iconography of “The Spanish Prisoner” and Mamet’s observation that the Nigerian Internet scam is a contemporary replay of the 2,000-year-old con game that is featured in his flawless movie.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at

The passion of David Lang


It may seem a sign of overconfidence for someone to tell you he’s rewriting a major work by Beethoven, but for David Lang, who reconceived Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” for his Pulitzer Prize- and Grammy Award-winning 2008 opera, “The Little Match Girl Passion,” it’s just business as usual.

Lang, 54, a Los Angeles native who has lived in New York for the past 30 years (he’s a founder of the contemporary music organization Bang On A Can there), is currently rewriting the entire libretto of Beethoven’s 1805 opera, “Fidelio,” a mishmash story of domestic drama, mistaken identity and the problems of political prisoners. And though he won’t be using one note of Beethoven’s score, it’s not because he doesn’t like it.

“It has such beautiful music and some of Beethoven’s most noble and pure thoughts,” Lang said, speaking by phone from New York, “but the story and libretto are terrible. Just when you want the chorus to sing, ‘Down with tyranny and long live freedom,’ we get ‘Happy is the man who has a loving wife.’ ”

For Lang, issues of action and social justice and what people do in dire or unusual circumstances drive much of his work. On June 4, the composer will be in Long Beach for a conversation with Long Beach Opera artistic director Andreas Mitisek about his 2002 opera, “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field,” which will be presented by the opera company on June 15 and 18.

For that unusual and atmospheric blend of opera and music theater, Lang, along with experimental playwright Mac Wellman, expanded a one-page story by the satirist and fabulist Ambrose Bierce. A Civil War correspondent, Bierce is probably best known for his short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”

Lang’s version of the author’s curious “Difficulty of Crossing a Field” is even stranger and more unsettling. Commissioned for the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco by artistic director Carey Perloff, another Jewish artist with Southern California roots, “Difficulty” explores the meaning of an incident in which a plantation owner crosses a field one morning in 1854 and mysteriously disappears.

“Even on one page, Bierce tells the story twice,” Lang said. “So we developed a ‘Rashomon’ aspect of seeing the story’s central event — the disappearance of a man — from several different points of view.”

But this is not just any man. He’s a white man from a slave-owning plantation family, whose presence is felt by his absence. “Almost everyone in the play is black,” Lang said. “Most of the characters are field slaves, who are present in every scene. And they know the truth. It feels as if, even though it may be supernatural, what really happens to this man is in some way his payment for slavery. That the system itself is so illegitimate and poisoned, that even the white power structure can’t survive.”

Lang said he liked exploring the subject of slavery because “it unsettles people very deeply in ways you can’t put your finger on.”

Lang’s “Little Match Girl Passion” is also deeply disturbing. He adapted Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of a girl starving to death on a street while people pass her by.

Lang said he loves Beckett’s line about always trying to “reduce things to its maximum.” For example, in transforming Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” in “Match Girl,” Lang used minimal musical means, reconceiving the composer’s crowd and character responses, to moving and maximum effect.

“I’ve tried to have music that is direct and unornamented that says I’m going to identify the simplest way to describe this wound, and I’m going to stick my finger in it. That’s what makes ‘Match Girl’ work. It’s not histrionic or melodramatic. It says, ‘Here is this situation, and I’m just going to tell you the facts.’ And I’m going to tell it to you so simply that you’re not going to be able to avoid how terrible this situation is.”

Lang added: “I was trying to write something on a Christian topic, because that’s where choral music comes from in Western civilization. It’s always been amazing to me that Christianity is based on believing that there was a person whose suffering was so noble that it changed the world. But what’s always so peculiar to me is that Christians — and the rest of us — we’re all perfectly happy to have suffering happen all over the place and not do anything about it. So it’s a bit like, here I am, this Jew from New York, saying, ‘Well, if you’re going to pay attention to this person’s suffering, why are you not paying attention to that person’s suffering?’ ”

Lang said music is an opportunity to look around and try to make a difference. “But you feel kind of impotent to change anything, because it’s just a piece of music,” he said. “So it has to spur you on to something that’s even a deeper, more impassioned way of living your life, if you’re going to change society.”

Lang’s mother, who is from Germany, lost everything in the Holocaust, including many relatives. And his father, a Lithuanian immigrant, grew up in poverty. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say these are Jewish values that I’m espousing, but because I am Jewish and because of the experience of Jews in the 20th century, the peculiar history that brought my parents together had a huge effect on how I view the world and what I want my music to accomplish.”

Lang also stops short of saying that being Jewish means you have an obligation to do something as an artist. “But,” he said, “the issue of what being Jewish costs people, for my parents’ generation, was something I grew up with. For me, being religious has to do with making up for the loss as much as I can — making up for the tragedy that came to the generation before us, just because they were Jews.

“For me, the religion and the suffering have been wedded together, which is probably not healthy for me or the religion. But I think it’s the truth.”

David Lang’s “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” will be presented by Long Beach Opera on June 15 and 18. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit

‘LUV’ Endures


Murray Schisgal’s comedy “LUV” is, as the alert reader might suspect, about love, even passionate love, but don’t expect any moon in June or till death do us part nonsense.

Actually, “LUV” works best as an anti-love play, and, after seeing it, any starry-eyed boy or girl might opt for a celibate life of devotion, if only their parents would let them.

Before seeing the show at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills, a ticketholder would be well advised to check out the book at a library (for younger folks unfamiliar with such obsolete terms, look it up on Google) and read the preface by Walter Kerr, then the theater critic for the late New York Herald Tribune.

“LUV” premiered on Broadway in 1964, a time when the avant-garde, according to Kerr, wallowed in “self dramatization, in romantic self-pity. … See how drained I am, how devastated, the squirming near-cadaver says, proud of his position as the Man Who Has Been Most Badly Treated.

“Where is the spotlight that will display me as victim?” Kerr continues. “The universe may be silent, but I will not be. Hear my moan. Isn’t it something, really something, how I am ravaged?”

By taking this very sentiment to its absurd extreme, Schisgal has written a play whose puncturing of such pretensions may not feel as fresh as 50 years ago, but which retains considerable wit and humor.

The play’s three characters, Harry Berlin, Milt Manville and Ellen, the object of both men’s love and loathing, are quite obviously Jewish New Yorkers, à la Neil Simon, although the ethnicity and locale are never mentioned.

Harry is a neurotic nebbish, and the two others are not far behind, though to go further into their symptoms and the ingenious plotline would spoil the fun.

However, they share a common leitmotif — Nobody knows the suffering I have borne — and they compete fiercely for the title of the most put-upon human being in Gotham. For example:

The two men reminisce about their respective childhoods.

Milt: What did you used to get for breakfast?

Harry: A glass filled with two-thirds water and one-third milk.

Milt: Coffee grounds, that’s what I got.

Harry: With sugar?

Milt: Not on your life. I ate it straight, like oatmeal.

The original Broadway production of “LUV” was directed by Mike Nichols and must have been a howl with actors the likes of Alan Arkin, Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson.

However, the current revival, presented in collaboration with the West Coast Jewish Theatre and directed by Howard Teichman, gives the audience its money’s worth.

Particularly nimble as Harry, mentally and physically, is Michael Goldstrom, who bears a notable resemblance to a young Charlie Chaplin, especially when outfitted with a cane.

Betsy Zajko as Ellen bemoans the misfortune of being smarter than any man around, not a major feat, and Rob Roy Cesar as Milt rounds out the ménage.

The clever stage design by Jeff G. Rack includes a bridge from which Harry tries to commit suicide at regular intervals, and a lamppost from which he tries to hang himself, also unsuccessfully.

“LUV” plays Wednesdays through Sundays until June 26 at the Reuben Cardova Theatre on the Beverly Hills High School campus. For information and reservations, go to www.theatre40.org, or call (310) 364-0535.

“Nazi Hunter-Simon Wiesenthal” runs Sunday through Tuesday evenings. For more information, call (310) 364-3606.

At Beit T’Shuvah, they sing a song of ‘Freedom’


“How long must I roam, to find my way home …”

Natalie sings the lines tentatively, tugging at her black T-shirt, her voice soft and sweet.

But soft and sweet won’t cut it for a drug addict trying to work her way back into her family on seder night.

“This is your story. Stand up for it. What are you afraid of?” director Laura Bagish urges her.

Natalie, who asked that only her first name be used for this article, plays the lead role of Shira in “Freedom Song,” a Passover-themed musical produced by Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish residential rehab facility in Culver City. The actors are all alumni and residents of Beit T’Shuvah, and at a late-night rehearsal in the facility’s lunchroom, which also serves as both auditorium and synagogue, they are feeling the pressure of the three shows they will be performing before Passover.

Playing a lost daughter feels particularly familiar to Natalie: She is 18 and was addicted to heroin when, three months ago, she left Beverly Hills High School to check herself into Beit T’Shuvah.

As the cast cheers her on, she sings with more depth, but she’ll have to get stronger before her first performance, just days away.

“Freedom Song” was written nearly seven years ago, based on the real-life stories of Beit T’Shuvah residents. Conceived as a one-time production, the 45-minute, edgy musical has played continually since then to thousands of people at synagogues, schools and other organizations across the country.

The show serves as a form of therapy for the actors, but it is also a catalyst for the audience. After each performance, the cast holds a dialogue with the audience, and nearly always someone from the audience comes forward with an addiction story of their own.

“It’s amazing that the play is such a vehicle for people opening up, for cutting through the denial and allowing people to speak in a way that seeing a didactic seminar about addiction just wouldn’t do,” said Beit T’Shuvah’s Cantor Rebekah Mirsky, a former country singer who co-authored the script.

The actors use the Passover story as a lens through which to view their own journeys, and in turn reflect back to the audience a new way of internalizing the Passover story: What are you a slave to? Do you retell your foundational story and pull meaning from it, or do you hide your truth from yourself and from others? Do you truly understand what it means to live free of deception? 

The staging juxtaposes a 12-step meeting with a family seder. The music, a mash-up of original theater tunes, Jewish liturgy and forceful pop, with interludes of rap, plays as a constant underscore for dialogue that weaves itself into the music.

As the story unfolds, the audience learns that the seemingly happy family members on one side of the stage are enslaved to their idea of normal, while hiding truths about themselves. The addicts on the other side of the stage share their tales of deception and self-sabotage — tales that each new round of actors writes into the script to reflect their true journey. The addicts, the audience learns, have grown to understand that owning their narrative is the only road to authentic living.

The show highlights the haggadah’s imperative for storytelling. Even if the story is shameful — 200 years of slavery, 20 years of addiction — telling it can be a powerful tool not only for an ongoing process of national rediscovery, but for deep and difficult self-improvement.

“For people who have had to be secretive, who have been ashamed of themselves and been hiding in many ways from themselves, this is really powerful,” said Beit T’Shuvah director Harriet Rossetto, who founded the program in 1987. “The message to addicts often is, ‘If anyone really knows who I am, they won’t love me.’ And I think that is what our people get — that sense that I can be me, and tell my story, and people will still love me.’ ”

Ira S., a 53-year-old who worked in the entertainment industry, is recovering from decades-long drug and alcohol abuse (he asked that only his last initial be used). He moved into Beit T’Shuvah in 2008 and now works there as a counselor. He plays Grandpa in “Freedom Song.”

“I’m not the kind of person that people see a lot. When I first came here, it was all about trying to get by without being on the radar. I was trying to hide more than being present, and that was a part of me that needed to change,” he said in an interview.

He said he was reluctant to join the cast and froze his first time on stage. But, now, he credits “Freedom Song” as being a major part of his recovery.

“I feel like I belong to something. I never felt like I belonged before,” he said.

Beit T’Shuvah is the only rehab residence in the country to integrate Judaism and the 12-step program. Its 120 beds, plus 30 outpatient slots, are always full. Two off-site residences house clients who are well into recovery, and Beit T’Shuvah recently purchased another building, next door, which it will use for its popular Shabbat services and an expansion of outpatient offerings, possibly including a drop-in center. Its prevention curriculum has reached thousands of teenage and middle school students.

While Beit T’Shuvah self-reports an impressive success rate of 65 percent, 85 percent of “Freedom Song” participants stay clean, according to Beit T’Shuvah’s Rabbi Mark Borovitz, who is married to Rossetto. The show allows for deep artistic expression and gives the participants responsibility and the sense that people are counting on them, Borovitz said.

“They know they’ve touched someone, which I’ve heard them say again and again was a bigger high than ever getting loaded was,” Rossetto agreed. “And when you give up your external high, there is a void, and if you don’t fill that with some other highs, it’s very hard to stay sober.”

Watch the trailer below.

Acting from the heart


USC freshman Shayna Turk, a 2010 graduate and former class president of New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, didn’t expect a nice gesture with a simple purpose to turn into a mitzvah with the power to save and restore young lives. The musical theater summer camp she created seven years ago, Shayna Turk’s Academy of Rising Stars (S.T.A.R.S.), has evolved into a substantial philanthropic enterprise.

Her selfless, charitable pursuit garnered her the title of Young Entrepreneur of The Year in June 2010 and a $10,000 college scholarship from the National Federation of Independent Business Young Entrepreneur Foundation and Visa.

As a child, Turk was an actress, an extrovert and an overachiever. She began to act in plays and musicals at the age of 5 and starred in dozens of productions throughout her youth. When she earned a leading role in the musical “Grease” while her little sister was given a part in the chorus, Turk thought her sister deserved better. This sowed the seeds of her idea for a performing arts camp for kids, where everyone would have a chance to participate, gain confidence and have fun.

At age 11, Turk began holding drama classes for children in her home in Agoura Hills. The idea was to teach them to perform a popular musical and have a public performance at the end of the course. She turned her grandparents’ nearby garage into a theater with a stage.

At the same time, Turk became very close to Delaney Small, a now-8-year-old neighbor who suffered from a congenital heart problem. When Delaney’s mother, Brenda, created Music for Heart, a nonprofit dedicated to helping pay for third-world children to have the same open-heart surgery that saved Delaney’s life, Turk dedicated hours to helping her promote the charity.

S.T.A.R.S. grew in popularity and profitability, presenting multiple live productions per summer and charging a modest sum for tickets. Turk immediately linked her two passions. “I started to donate the proceeds, from the time of my bat mitzvah. I was just so touched and connected to the organization and the family, that I saw an opportunity to help in another way,” she said. 

Ticket sales, camp tuition and donations have enabled her to raise $10,000 over the years to help pay for the surgeries of several Salvadoran children. She has also been to El Salvador twice to visit children with heart conditions.

Turk thinks the charitable aspect of her business helped her win the Young Entrepreneur award from among 4,300 applicants nationwide, and she credits her parents, Gregory, a dentist, and Diana, herself an entrepreneur, with instilling in her the value of tzedakah.

When reflecting on her experience with the children she’s taught at her camp, as well as those whose lives she helped save, Turk said she feels humbled and appreciative. “I didn’t know it would have such an effect on me. It changed my character.” 

Check out Shayna Turk’s Academy of Rising Stars at dramastars.com.