Community, Theater business, Tu B'Shevat, Year Review

Tu B’Shevat–Enjoying the Fruits of Our Labors: 2019 Jerusalem English Theater Recap and What’s Happening in 2020

It’s Tu B’Shevat, the 2019-2020 season is well underway, but the 2018-2019 season left an indelible impression. It was a season that brought the community original, hard-hitting drama and sparks of musical innovation. The year also saw the establishment of new theater companies, CBDB productions and Theater Zion. The English speaking theater community has grown substantially, both in the number of companies and plays and in the sizes of audiences enjoying high-quality English language dramas and musicals in Jerusalem. 

Mikveh the Musical, Music and Monologues from the Deep is an immersive experience that brings to the audience true stories written by women and set to lively, familiar tunes. The play was produced by the all-women’s company Raise Your Spirits and presented the play as a Reader’s Theater with performers holding scripts and bringing the text alive through facial expressions and light choreography. The play was performed on January 6th at Nishmat and March 27 at the Eden Center and was performed overseas. 

Shards, a compelling one-man show by cantor and veteran performer Evan Kent returned to Jerusalem after a successful tour in the United States. Through music, storytelling and puppets, composer and performer Evan Kent brings the audience on a journey into his family’s history and his aliyah to Eretz Yisroel. Shards also appeared at the AACI in January 2020 before additional performances overseas. 

God of Isaac was the second show produced by Ben Bard players after its hard-hitting original play about the Holocaust, The Statement, in 2018. God of Isaac, which director Barak Bard refers to as a “serious comedy,” takes the audience on a private tour of Isaac’s identity crisis. The play is poignant, funny and a nostalgic look at one man’s return to his Jewish roots. It was performed at the Khan in late February. 

In the Heights, created by Broadway innovator Lin-Manuel Miranda, author of the hugely successful musical Hamilton, took Beit Shmuel by storm in February and March. Starcatcher’s bright and lively production was a breath of fresh air in late winter and dazzled audiences with an energetic cast, colorful sets and masterful choreography. 

The original musical, Rewrite the World, by director of Israel Musicals, Yisrael Lutnick, appeared in March and May for a second time in Jerusalem after its premiere run a decade ago. The production also traveled to Netanya for additional shows.  The musical illustrates the challenges of a teenager who finds clues in the weekly Torah portion and discovers ways to encourage his quarreling parents to reconcile. The musical demonstrates parallels between Biblical and modern characters with insight, warmth, humor and musical charm. 

Steel Magnolias was a favorite 1980s film with an all-star cast after a successful run as a Broadway play. This down-home tale of female bonding in the Deep South resonated with audiences in Jerusalem as the play conveyed its wisdom through laughter and tears. The play was produced by J-Town Playhouse and appeared at the AACI in March 

It’s No Job for a Nice Jewish Girl hit Jerusalem after sold-out shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This award-winning one-woman show by UK-based actress and comedian Rachel Creeger was performed for Jerusalem audiences in March. 

Irena’s Vow is a tale of Holocaust survival from the point of view of the rescuer. The play was breathtakingly honest in its portrayal of a woman’s sacrifice to behave morally in an environment where others were content to obey brutal orders. The play was produced by J-Town Playhouse in May and appeared on Yom haShoah. 

Encore brought the uplifting tunes and erudite lyrics of Gilbert and Sullivan to life once again with its spring production of Pirates of Penzance in May and June. Brilliant sets and captivating costumes enhanced the talents of Encore singers and actors who performed for sold-out houses in Beit Shmuel. 

Theater and Theology addressed the contemporary controversy of Jewish conversion with the original play In a Stranger’s Grave by Miriam Metzinger. The play borrowed its structure from classical drama but dealt with an issue that  creates conflict in modern Israeli families and communities. There were intense talkbacks with Jerusalem-based scholars following performances at the Khan in June, September and in Beit Shemesh in December. 

J-Town Playhouse brought Shakespeare’s fantastical favorite about exotic islands, romance and cultural conflict to the AACI. The Tempest, which included music, dance and plenty of humorous touches, appeared in June. 

Theater in the Rough brought the #Metoo controversy and the incandescent language of the Bard to Bloomfield Gardens to over 2,000 viewers in August with their production of Measure for Measure. Theater in the Rough celebrated a decade since its first popular Shakespeare performance in the park. Theater in the Rough also presented its direct experience of theater into actual Jerusalem living rooms with God of Carnage in January 2020. The contemporary comedy of manners by French playwright Yasmina Reza was performed in private homes for small, enthusiastic audiences. 

JET Venues began its inaugural year with a steady series of events, classes and resources for the community from regular karaoke nights to weekly classes in everything from Krav Maga to ballet. There was also a successful summer theater camp for kids. It was also the venue for a musical theater workshop by actor, director and choreographer Miguel Braganza. sponsored by CBDB Productions. 

JET Venues also hosted a 24 hour play festival in July that featured a variety of plays composed by several groups of talented writers and performers. The plays ranged from drama to comedy and everything in between with recognizable names and new faces in the theater community. 

The 2019 and 2020 Season

The 2019-20 so far has been unique, because it includes three musicals by the writing team Bock and Harnick: She Loves Me, Fiddler on the Roof and Rothchild and Sons. She Loves Me is a charming musical story of romance and friendship in a Hungarian perfumery in the 1930s. The musical was produced by J-Town Playhouse and appeared in December. 

The perennial Jewish favorite, Fiddler on the Roof, brought warmth, music and nostalgia to a particularly cold and rainy Jerusalem winter. Chanukah is not the same without the annual Beit Hillel production, and Fiddler on the Roof delighted families in packed houses at the Beit Hillel Theater. 

Encore kicked off 2020 with the third Bock and Harnock musical of the season, Rothschild and Sons, which told the story of the Rothschild dynasty from its humble origins in the ghetto of Frankfort to the courts of princes and spheres of influence established by the five Rothschild sons. Elegant costumes and an intergenerational cast, including youthful and mature actors portraying the Rotshchild sons, brought dimension to this musical saga, which appeared at Beit Shmuel to full houses in January.

Another production that brought 2020 to a strong start was Israel Musicals’ production of the Pulitzer Prize winning 1931 musical Of Thee I Sing, with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin and script by George Kaufman, who wrote for the Marx Brothers. Although political satire was considered relatively new to the theater in the 1930s, the topic feels at home on the contemporary stage. Of Thee I Sing appeared at Beit Shmuel in late January and early February. 

The new theater company Theater Zion began its premiere production with the drama The Trial of Uncle Charlie about an Israeli trying to deal with his past and present. He revisits his memories of battles against the British to smuggle Holocaust survivors into Eretz Yisroel and the toll those sacrifices took on his personal and family life. The play appeared at the Khan theater in late January and early February. 

The AACI has been a home to J-Town Playhouse for almost a decade. Many people in the theater community reacted to the news that The Last Five Years would be the final production at the AACI with sadness and nostalgia.  The Last Five Years, a play that follows the ups and downs of a couple’s complex relationship, produced by J-Town Playhouse, is being performed in February. A farewell party for the AACI after the final performance of the play will mark a bittersweet farewell to this familiar space. From kids getting their theatrical start in Crossroads presentations to veteran and professional actors joining the community for dream roles in classic plays, the AACI has provided a creative space for actors, singers, dancers, comedians, directors and set and lighting designers. Although J-Town Playhouse expects to continue to produce the kind of plays and musicals the community is accustomed to, it is time to say farewell to the AACI as a theatrical value and cherish the memories. 

Upcoming productions for 2020 include Starcatcher’s Chicago in March, Encore’s South Pacific in May, Ben Bard Players’ The Consul, the Tramp and America’s Sweetheart in June, Theater and Theology’s Miracle on S. Division Street in May and June and Theater in the Rough’s Henry IV in August. The community looks forward to new productions from companies such as CBDB Productions, which is planning a production of Song of Solomon, the compelling musical drama of the life of King Solomon, and the next chapter for J-Town Playhouse. 

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