2018 was a stellar year for Jerusalem English Theater with a compelling array of Broadway classics, original plays, family favorites and edgy, thought-provoking drama. In the past year, two new companies, Ben Bard Players and the Jerusalem Public Theater, had their premiere productions. Over 12,000 people attended community theatrical productions in English, culminating in Encore’s The King and I which ended the year with sold-out performances at the Hirsch Theater in Beit Shmuel. The following is a review of the major Jerusalem productions in English in 2018.
J-Town Playhouse produced Stephen Sondheim’s and John Weidman’s straight-shooting musical Assassins which opened just in time for President’s Day in February. This hard-hitting musical was directed by Layla Schwartz, and presented the individual and collective narratives of notorious and failed assassins alike throughout America’s history. The production had a second run in early May.
Starcatcher brought its magic to the Jerusalem audience with Pippin, a jazzy, irreverent musical about the identity crisis of its historical title character who seems ambivalent about succeeding his father, Charlemagne. The dance, color and energy of the production sparkled with the direction and choreography of Yaeli Greenblatt. Performances were in February of 2018.
Two productions focusing on issues arising from the Holocaust appeared around the time of Yom HaShoah. I Never Saw Another Butterfly was based on the true story of Raja Englanderova and her experiences in the Terezin concentration camp. The cast included actors of all ages, was directed by Malka Abrahams and ran in April 2018. Ben Bard Players, premiered with The Statement, an original play by French playwright Claude Salama. The Statement presents an unimaginable dilemma faced by ten prominent German Jews with a gripping conclusion.The Statement appeared in April 2018 at the Khan Theater.
The Public Theater made its debut with the Shakespearean comedy As You Like It. The play features the love and adventure of three couples in comic cases of mistaken identity and reflections on life with the iconic speech “All the World’s a Stage.” The play appeared at the Khan theater in June and was directed by Toby Trachtman and Dinah Elashvili.
Ordinary Days, a musical about the intersecting lives of four very different New Yorkers, was produced by J-Town Playhouse in February 2017. Ordinary Days, written by Adam Gwon, deals with the dreams, relationships, the chaos and the joy of big city life and was produced in the intimate setting of the AACI. The production was revived this year for additional performances and was again directed by Aviella Trapido in the summer.
Theater and Theology tackled the theme of individuality versus religious devotion in Off the Derech/Dolorosa, directed by Yael Valier. The play features a teacher in a Catholic school whose commitment to life in a convent is challenged when she rediscovers an old flame. The play was staged at the Khan in the summer with additional performances in September and October.
The stories of Hans Christian Andersen were brought to life by Encore in May through colorful costumes, dance and storytelling by players of all ages. The production Hans Andersen included renditions of the Danish storyteller’s most unforgettable tales, including “Thumbelina,” “The Ugly Duckling” and “The Chinese Nightingale.” The play appeared at the Hirsch Theater in Beit Shmuel in May and was directed by Robert Binder.
Theater in the Rough continued its tradition of bringing Shakespeare to the great outdoors of Bloomfield gardens, this time with the Bard’s best-known play, Hamlet. The classic was edited to half its actual length but included its most unforgettable scenes, including the gravedigger scene, “The Mousetrap” scene, the closet scene and its dramatic finale directed by Beth Steinberg. Hamlet ran in August in Bloomfield gardens with free admission and attracted close to 2,000 people.
Free to Be You and Me is a feel-good show for young people that was developed in the 1970s and appeared at the AACI on Fridays throughout the summer for kids and their parents alike. J-Town Playhouse produced this favorite play with uplifting songs about equality and individuality and Aliza Schoffman-Land directed.
Cabaret kicked off the fall season with its dark vision of Bohemian life in the early 1930s Germany at the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power. The performance space of the AACI was transformed to evoke the atmosphere of a Cabaret with numbers by the Kit Kat Klub members and other characters in conflict over their changing world. Cabaret was produced by J-Town Playhouse directed by Aviella Trapido and appeared in November.
Women in Theater produced a female-only version of Our Town by Thornton Wilder, a play about small town life and how relationships grow with the passage of time. Women in Theater continued its tradition of adapting theater classics for an entirely female cast. Performances were in November in Modiin, Ranaana and of course Jerusalem and was directed by Pnina Fredman-Schechter.
Hidden was an original musical based on the lives of a Jewish family during the brutal Inquisition when Jews were required to leave Spain, face death or hide their identity. The plot was based on the The Family Aguilar by Rabbi Marcus Lehmann and was adapted with original music by Sharon Katz and Avital Macales with direction by Shifra Penkower. The all-female cast performed in November at the Israel Arts and Sciences Academy Theater.
West Side Story brought the music of Leonard Bernstein to Jerusalem audiences for what would have been the great composer’s centennial year. Beit Hillel Theater Workshop produced this American musical classic as its annual Chanukah show with its familiar rhythms and choreography inspired by Jerome Robbins and directed by Michael Berl and Miriam Wartski.
Second Labor delivered its third performance of monologues adapted from real stories of new parents. Chaya Valier, who wrote the book Second Labor brought these testimonials to life in December after previous shows at Nocturno and Tmol Shilshom.
The King and I topped off a great year filled with music, comedy and drama. Encore produced this time-honored story of an English nanny who instructs the many children of the King of Siam (modern day Thailand). With direction by Robert Binder,audiences at the Hirsch Theater enjoyed classic songs such as “Getting to Know You,” and “I Have Dreamed” in December.
2018 also saw a number of one-person performances and musical reviews. An Evening with Gershwin and Love Letters for Cole Porter captured the music and spirit of the great American composers, George Gershwin and Cole Porter and was produced at the AACI in February. Renowned Cantor Evan Kent brought the history of his family and his own journey to Israel to life with Shards, a one-man show that included original music, humor and tender anecdotes. The show appeared in the summer at the Shalom Hartman Institute and is scheduled for another performance in January 2019 at the AACI. Yisrael Lutnick revived his tribute to Old Blue Eyes with Sinatra at the AACI and brought to the stage Rosenblatt & Gershwin, a musical story of the unlikely similarities shared by two musical greats, one a legendary composer the other a celebrated cantor. The production involved the combined talents of Yisrael Lutnick and beloved musical director Haim Tukachinsky ob’m.
This year was a joyful and productive one for the English speaking community theater, but it also was marked by the tragic and untimely loss of prolific musical director Haim Tukachinsky ob’m who was hit by a drunken driver on Succot. The entire theater community was staggered by the loss of Haim, who was a friend to all who worked with him and had directed almost countless musical productions by the age of 31. Although the loss of Haim is too great to calculate or even communicate, the music and theater community will continue to evoke his memory in future productions, develop and be nourished by everything he taught us.