Theater Chat: Stars of David

— by Hannah Lee

I love listening to authors and artists talk about the creative process, so I’d looked forward to a lunch-and-talk program on Wednesday at the Gershman Y about Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish, which premiered at the Suzanne Roberts Theater on October 17th. Hurricane Sandy kept Abigail Pogrebin, its creator, from attending, but Warren Hoffman, Senior Director of Programming, ably undertook the role of interviewer for two notable Jews: Sharon Pinkenson, Executive Director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, and Ivy Barsky, the new Director and CEO of the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH). Then we went across the street and watched an afternoon show.

More after the jump.
Under Pinkenson’s guidance, the Greater Philadelphia Film Office brought the city revenues of $3.5 billion dollars, up from $2.1 million dollars from local movie production (statistics from interview in Philly Style Magazine). Her staff of six consists of only one other Jew, but all of her employees are taught to speak Yiddish, “starting with the ‘fa’ words,” farpatshket (messed up, sloppy), fartshadet (surprised, stunned), and fartutst (confused). The majority of her childhood was spent in Levittown, so she was comfortable with a heterogenous population and she loved arguing with the Rabbi. As a single mother, she was welcomed by Rodelph Shalom, who allowed her to pay on a sliding scale and she recalls with pride the day she was able to pay dues in full. Married for 27 years to her second husband, Joe Weiss, chairman of Electronic Ink, and the grandmother of three, she beguiled Weiss to attend Rodelph Shalom, where “the Shema is optional.”

Barsky grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where every one of her neighbors voted for George McGovern, who nevertheless lost the presidential election in 1972 to Richard Nixon. Her family was not observant, but she became “a professional Jew” through the meanderings of her career– from graduate studies in Art History at the University of Pennsylvania to almost 15 years as deputy director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan. This background gives her an important perspective on the museum’s mission, as an educational institution for those without a strong Jewish foundation.

A summa cum laude graduate of Yale University and the daughter of Letty Cottin Pogrebin (the co-founder of Ms. Magazine), Pogrebin published her book, Stars of David, in 2005 (by Doubleday) in which she turned own confusion about her identity as a Jew into an ad-hoc sociological study, reaching out to prominent Jews. The musical production has a small cast of five– Nancy Balbirer as Narrator; Alex Brightman, Joanna Glushak, Brad Oscar, and Donna Vivino– who channel the spirit of a cross-section of influential Jews from Kenneth Cole to Norman Lear to Gloria Steinman.

My two favorite numbers were both by Vivino, in which she sang of the alienation felt by “Ruth Bader Ginsburg” in being excluded from the minyan for reciting Kaddish after the death of her mother (the day before her graduation from high school) and the way “Fran Drescher” dealt with enduring ethnic stereotyping in her acting career. Other numbers were not as effective as when “Edgar Bronfman,” prompted by his 5-year-old granddaughter’s question, “Who is God,” committed himself to the study of Talmud. An uplifting liberal message is offered by “Tony Kushner” who noted being Jewish (and being persecuted for it) was good practice for being gay and that the Jewish people have a big enough house with a room for everyone.

With our township schools closed from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I brought along my teen daughter along and we were both surprised that she enjoyed herself! Stars of David will play through November 18th; tickets may be ordered through The Philadelphia Theatre Company.

“STARS OF DAVID” Charms at Philadelphia Theatre Company

Brad Oscar (center), one of the stars of STARS OF DAVID, at the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s opening night reception, welcomed his Uncle Jack and Aunt Marilyn Dorris (left), along with his parents Fran and Paul Oscar, who all made the trip from Washington, DC area, to enjoy Brad’s performance.  Oscar had been nominated for a Tony Award a few years ago for his starring role on Broadway in “The Producers.” Photo credit: Bonnie Squires.

— by Bonnie Squires

There were two reasons why I was pre-disposed to enjoy “Stars of David,” the original musical production at the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre in Philadelphia.  First, Brad Oscar was one of the stars, and I had seen him in action when he starred in the Broadway version of “The Producers,” some years ago.  Oscar played the Nazi playwright who had penned the mythical “Springtime for Hitler” and was nominated for a Tony Award for his memorable performance.  His “mishpokhe” drove in from Washington to enjoy his opening night performance.

And second, although I never met author Abigail Pogrebin, I had served on the national governing council of the late lamented American Jewish Congress with Abby’s mother, Letty Pogrebin, another talented writer.

And the Jewish Mother in me knew how proud Letty must be because of her daughter’s success with the book of interviews with famous Jewish people, as well as the musical version which takes fourteen of her interviews and turns them into sketches with song.  

More after the jump.

My husband has a word for Jewish geniuses: “Jewnius.”  And that’s what the collection of songwriters and scriptwriters must be called, working from Abby Pogrebin’s book of interviews with dozens of accomplished Jewish professionals.

Abby asked each person what they thought about being Jewish.  Some were totally comfortable with their Jewish heritage.  Others had denied their Judaism for much of their lives.  In other words, we see a cross-section of American Jews, and everyone in the audience could relate to at least one or two of the characters singing their hearts out on stage.

Particularly moving was Alex Brightman’s rendering of “Lenny the Great” – the mini-bio of Leonard Nimoy, of “Star Trek” fame.  Seems Nimoy was a magician early in life – until an anti-Semitic magic store owner cheated him, substituting anti-Semitic tracts in a case which was supposed to hold Nimoy’s longed-for magic tricks.

The stories revealed are touching and moving and funny and dramatic, and the five Broadway calibre actors, including Brad Oscar, backed by an unseen orchestra, are highlighted by a set which often has slides and video of the characters being represented.

You will certainly remember the Ruth Bader Ginsburg vignette and lament, with her remembrance of heartbreak when she was barred from the minyan saying kaddish for her mother.  Sam Davis, the musical supervisor who is responsible for the orchestrations and arrangements, works his magic.

You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy “Stars of David” – I tested my theory on opening night, approaching several young African American professionals who were guests of a Philadelphia Theatre Company board member.  They loved the show.  I forgot to ask them if they needed to refer to the program’s dictionary of Yiddish and Jewish Terms.

Aaron Sorkin and Tony Kushner and Gloria Steinem, Joan Rivers and Kenneth Cole, are among the other stars portrayed on stage in lively and delightful scenes.  Charles Busch’s “script” weaves together the talents of leading lights of the American music scene, totaling a thoroughly delightful evening at the theater.

You will recognize the names of some of the Honorary Producers listed in the playbook, including Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival sponsors Nancy and David Colman, Phyllis and Howard Fischer, and Barbara and Mickey Black.  Go.  Enjoy!