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Neo-Biblical Musical of Esther Celebrates Purim

March 4, 2014

The Book of Esther is the basis for the musical They should have called it "The Sound of Liberation" or something like it, but no such luck. Not to worry, after decoding the title of Di Megileh of Itzik Manger, this item will have a smooth sailing. So let's go step by step.

Purim, which arrives at sunset on March 15 this year, is an ancient holiday marking the deliverance of the Jewish people in the Persian Empire, when they were threatened by a plot. The story is recorded in the Biblical Book of Esther, or "Megillat Ester." (Also "megileh" apparently — spelling of names changes from Yiddish to Hebrew to English; normally, we'd be consistent in English, but with the use of the Yiddish title and role names, it cannot be helped.)

Just before the holiday, the Yiddish Theater Collective presents the West Coast premiere of the Purim musical, Di Megileh of Itzik Manger in the JCC East Bay, March 6-10. All the spoken and sung Yiddish will have English translations projected on Supertitles.

The play is by Itzik Manger, a prominent Yiddish poet, with Israeli composer Dov Seltzer writing the music. Narrator Naomi Newman in front of the <em>Megileh</em> cast Photo by Andy MuchinThe musical is coming from a successful off-Broadway run last year, when The New York Times hailed,"These scenery-chewing shows, akin to British pantomime or Italian commedia dell’arte, including elements of circus, puppetry and other carnival-like entertainment."

Instead of the original Biblical setting, the musical is staged against the backdrop of immigrant New York City during the 1930s, which was the Yiddish theater's golden age, headed by Boris Thomasefsky, Michael Tilson Thomas' grandfather. The producers promise a "version of the Purim story never learned in Hebrew school."

The gist of the Biblical story is that in Persia, a hundred years after the Babylonian Exile in the 6th-century BCE, Esther, an orphaned Jewish girl wins the beauty contest held by King Xerxes to replace the deposed Queen Vashti.

A high official, Haman, plots to kill the king and all the Jews, but Esther reveals the conspiracy to the king, who has Haman executed, and in gratitude, he grants Jews protection throughout the land, an act that assured Jews a home in Persia for centuries, prompting the celebration of Purim, "days of feasting and gladness."

The musical, in collaboration with KlezCalifornia and the 29th Jewish Music Festival, pulls together a dozen well-known artists from the Bay Area, including actresses Naomi Newman (founder of the Traveling Jewish Theater) and Joan Mankin (active with A.C.T. and other companies), who provide the narration.

Starring in the tile role of Ester, the new Queen, is Heather Klein, American soprano and Yiddish chanteuse. Berel Alexander plays the role of Ester’s jilted lover, Fastrigoseh.

Akhashveyrush, the King, will be portrayed by Linda Hirschhorn, noted singer/songwriter, cantor, composer and storyteller. Josiah Polhemus plays the villain, Haman.

Others in the cast are Eliana Kissner as Vashti, the Queen; Joel Fleisher as Mordekhay, Ester’s uncle; and Laura Shephard as Haman’s wife, Zeyresh; also Diane Wirshafter, Paloma George, Ed Silberman, Michael Gliksohn, Gerry Tenney, and Evelie Delfino.

The concert presentation is directed and choreographed by Bruce Bierman, with musical direction by Achi Ben Shalom. The band, led by Laura Rosenberg, consists of Candy Sanderson (violin), Achi Ben-Shalom (guitar), Gerry Tenney (mandolin), Gabriel Ben-Shalom (percussion), and Jim Rebhan (accordion).

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].