Sondheim, Israeli Style

A fun evening at the theater with an original Israeli musical in the best tradition of the genre. The storyline is a bit ragged, but the singing and dancing are extremely enjoyable.

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Miki Kam (left) and Tali Oren. Magnificent artists of timing and nuance.
Miki Kam (left) and Tali Oren. Magnificent artists of timing and nuance.Credit: Orit Pnini

In the past 20 years or more, generations of creative forces have sprung up in Israel in the realm of theater musicals: actors-singers-dancers of both genders, spearheaded by choreographers and directors who are fond of this American genre. For the most part, these prodigious professional artistic talents have devoted their energies to performing musicals that have achieved classic status. Nevertheless, the force that drives the work – the musical itself – seems to have faded since the glory days of Israeli musicals such as “Kazablan” and “Sallah Shabati,” concentrating instead – wastefully, in my view – on musicals based on existing hit songs that are strung on a concocted plot (“Mary Lou,” “HaLahaka” and their ilk).

The Bat Yam-based festival of musicals came into being in order to encourage original works in this sphere. “Billy Schwartz” – by Ohad Hitman (idea, book, music and lyrics) and Shirili Deshe (book) – took first prize in Bat Yam last year, and is now, at last, getting a full production at the Haifa Theater.

The good news is that the singing (and dancing) is superb. From the opening, with a relatively large orchestra onstage (10 musicians), the atmosphere of a vintage American musical that isn’t overly newfangled (that is, melodic, rhythmic, pleasant to the ear and the emotions) and the energetic, choreographically inventive musical numbers, there isn’t a dull moment. In fact, there are hardly any moments that aren’t either sung or danced. It’s almost as though we’ve been transported back to 1980s Broadway.

The story revolves around Billy Schwartz, a bland secretary (something of a “Nurse Betty” type) with a tiresome mother. In the wake of a nasty trick played on her in the office, she is courted by a charming telenovela star who is supposed to lead her on and let her down, but falls in love with her instead. A bit banal and farfetched, a bit groundless, very American-plastic with Israeli overtones; but enough of a plot skeleton to flesh out with songs and dances and add a sufficient degree of self-parody.

The main thing is the presence on stage of a small, energetic, skilled chorus and four characters that are played to the hilt. Nili Tserruya in the role of the bitch and Amir Hillel as the lover are professional and polished in the supporting parts. The leads are played by two magnificent comics-singers-actresses-dancers from two generations: Tali Oren shines in the tricky role of being awkward and gangly with marvelous grace, and Miki Kam rules the stage as her mother. Both are artists of timing and nuance whom it’s a pleasure to watch.

The lyrics are professional and efficient, but don’t grab you as the stirring music does. Billy’s first song in the second act is certainly inspired by Stephen Sondheim, as are a few other musical moments (including the medical dream-nightmare). The play’s weakness lies in the book, the storyline. It’s unfortunate that the director, Daniel Efrat, wasn’t more demanding in this regard, as the heart of the play in the second act – the mother’s singing and her relations with her daughter – need a firmer foundation than Omer Zimri’s joyous and inventive choreography.

Indeed, the creators of the work and the director forgot that a musical play also needs a dramatic structure as well as diversity and transition between slow and fast, boisterous and quiet, entertaining and emotional. The stage design (Sasha Lisiansky) is purposeful but somewhat threadbare and drab, and possibly that is why I found the costumes (Yuval Caspin) excessively campy.

But the production as a whole is engaging and energetic, overflowing with enthusiasm and professionalism. The creative artists obviously love the genre – at least as much as I do – and are well-versed in it. It’s true that I’m wrinkling my nose a little, but I have to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

The next performances of “Billy Schwartz” are on May 24, 25, 26 at Haifa Theater at 8.30 P.M.