The Philadelphia Fringe Festival is back for another year of experimental performances around the city. Of the dozens of comedies, dramas and tragedies, one musical at the Independence Seaport Museum might affirm your belief in following your dreams — and working part-time at a deli.
Running Sept. 7-10, “As The Matzo Ball Turns” follows a Hollywood story onstage, but has plenty of twists and turns behind the scenes.
Jozef Rothstein (played by Sebastian Paff) embodies the “aspiring” in aspiring actor. He dips his spoon into the chicken soup of Hollywood and just can’t seem to get a taste, especially with the ominous Hollywood Machine blocking his path. While he’s fighting for his shot at the screen, he works at a well-known Los Angeles deli and logs hours at an acting studio with his pal Mary (played by Joanna Ferbrache).
“We see the struggle of falling in love, trying to find his purpose, and I think it really speaks to everyone,” said Sara Viteri, producer and co-director. “No matter what career path you’re choosing, I think we’re all trying to find our place in the sun.”
The musical premiered January 2017 in Jim Thorpe, PA, and the Fringe performance will be the show’s second ever run. The musical team aims to go to New York City after they finish their performances in Philadelphia.
All of this movement owes no small part to Gene Duffy, co-director and author of the book that inspired the musical. Duffy, who assumes the literary pseudonym of his main character Jozef Rothstein , performs many roles in the musical: co-director, executive producer, music writer, and script writer. Every note and line that Rothstein sings this September is “all coming from Gene Duffy’s brain,” as Viteri put it, with help from songwriter Daniel DeMelfi.
Duffy, Viteri and the rest of the cast have been busy since their first performance. In addition to rehearsals for Fringe, the “Matzo Ball” team picked up new cast members and rewrote parts of the show. The initial audience “didn’t understand whose role was who” in the cast of 16, Viteri said. In response, the team tweaked characters’ motivations and wrote two new songs to showcase the changes. Choreographer Andrew Stewart also added more drama and excitement to dance numbers.
Although Viteri said this upcoming performance is close to the final version, Viteri isn’t sure when the show will stop evolving, due to the cast’s new ideas about their characters and the artistic team’s adjustments from audience feedback. “Like, ‘You don’t have to cross off even one more line here!’ That’d be the day,” she said with a laugh.
Viteri hopes that the people watching the show’s Philadelphia debut will continue to shape its development. “We’d like to hear what the audience wants to see more of, what they wanna see less of, and just make it a really, really dynamic performance,” enthused the Bethlehem resident.
Audience members ready to sit back, relax, and enjoy a thoroughly Jewish show might be at the wrong theater. Despite the deli setting and Rothstein’s religious affiliation, more important to the play are the political and aspirational themes.
“For us, it’s not really about the Jewish identity. It’s more about just following Jozef down the rabbit hole that he goes in,” Viteri explained. “It’s more his finding his purpose and in the midst of the political chaos and economic chaos that we all see and experience throughout our lives.”
On the musical’s website, the deli setting is played for laughs and seriousness. It’s where Rothstein “slings sandwiches to the Hollywood in and out crowd” and sometimes encounters “hit men, celebrities and old Jewish ladies.” But the restaurant is also billed as a “microcosm” of the current political and economic climate.
To really get inside the deli, the cast rehearses three nights a week at the Banana Factory in Bethlehem. By night and by day, the team shares notes, consults on dance numbers with Stewart, and devises marketing strategies with co-producer Kate Hughes.
Amid all this activity, Viteri can relate to the striving spirit of the musical’s protagonist, Rothstein.
“At times, it’s very hard because we don’t have a steady paycheck. You know, it’s project to project,” the producer and actress said. “But you want to find your place, you don’t want to give up on what you wanna be, you want to be happy doing what you love, and I don’t think I would trade that in for a 9-to-5 ever again, no matter how stressful it is.”
“As the Matzo Ball Turns” will play at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival from Sept. 7-10 at the Independence Seaport Museum (211 S. Christopher Columbus Blvd, Philadelphia.) Tickets are $22 online or at the door.