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When Ed Spitz was a college student in Brooklyn, his fondest dream was to sing the role of the Judge in Gilbert & Sullivan's Trial by Jury.
"Our theater group put on the play, but the director's husband was a real judge so he won the part," Spitz recalls. "I played the Jury Foreman but never got over my desire to play the Judge."
Spitz waited, hoping that eventually a chance would come his way. It finally did - but not until he made aliya.
"In 1977, we were living in Omer and they were building the new city cultural center. I drove by it every day, watched the construction, and then I got an idea. If there's a new cultural center, why couldn't we put on a play? We could do Trial by Jury, and I could play the Judge!"
Spitz's passion for a Gilbert & Sullivan role ultimately brought about the birth of LOGON - The Light Opera Group of the Negev.
The Omer municipality had already hired David Waldman - LOGON's current musical director - to direct a city choir, says Spitz, "so we compromised. For the first half of the practice we'd sing Hebrew songs, and for the second half we'd rehearse Trial by Jury. Each cast member contributed $10, and we built some minimal sets. I mimeographed the musical score I still had from college, and handed it out. We weren't at all sure who would come to an English-language musical in Omer, but we put on two shows, and both sold out."
This year, LOGON celebrates 25 years of productions that have brought the pleasure of musical comedy to audiences across Israel. The all-volunteer cast and crew is stronger and more committed than ever, and their current production of Cole Porter's Anything Goes, which opens on February 13, promises to sell out.
In recognition of LOGON's silver anniversary, three long-time loyalists have produced a combined commemorative and how-to handbook entitled The Stage Is Our World: An Amateur Musical Theater Group in Israel.
"The idea to tell the LOGON story came up several years ago," says Paul Hare, who edited the book together with Patricia Golan and Yamima Osher. "About one-third is pictures of the productions and playbills for each show. It lists everyone who's ever been involved with LOGON - literally a cast of thousands over 25 years."
Hare and his wife June are LOGON members. "LOGON is a family affair. In South Africa, June played Tzeitel, the oldest daughter, in Fiddler on the Roof for years, so I had an experienced bride. When we married, she'd already been under the huppa about 900 times."
"Whole families are involved," says Razelle Weiss, whose husband Aaron Leeper and children Ma'ayan and Shalev have been involved for years. "LOGON is so consuming that many spouses decide they may as well join, too."
This year, Weiss is serving as assistant director, which means she's on the set every moment director Helen Eleasari is.
Having their children audition for LOGON seemed natural. "I heard they needed kids, and my kids are fourth-generation dancers," says Weiss. "My grandmother was Orthodox so she didn't dance in public, but she was constantly dancing around the house and with other women at celebrations. My mother, who just turned 90, ran a dance studio with her sister. I was a certified Arthur Murray dance teacher. Ma'ayan has been studying dance since she was five, and last year Shalev studied break dancing. So having them in LOGON just made sense."
Shalev's progress through LOGON roles illustrates a typical problem for kids on stage: They grow. "Two years ago, when Shalev was in Annie Get Your Gun, they had to rewrite his part," says Leeper.
Playing an adult role makes a big difference, says Aaron. "Kids on the set get special treatment. They come in, practice, rehearse, and they're done. Everyone recognizes their limitations, so they don't sit around and wait. But adults do have to hang around, take their turns."
Weiss was the last of the family to join LOGON. "I was a LOGON widow," she says. "People don't realize how much time goes into a production. For months, they practice twice a week, but for the last month it's four nights a week. My whole family would go off together to rehearsals, and night after night, I'd be left alone. Then they'd come bouncing in the door, talking and laughing over inside stories, and I felt left out." She finally joined last year.
For the musical Bennett family, LOGON is a way of life. Father Richard is a veterinarian when he's not in LOGON; mother Myra sings, plays guitar and works in hi-tech; son Ori, 16, studies voice and plays in other local theater productions; and daughter Kiri, 13, has been in the Bat Dor Dance Company for half her lifetime.
Not only do the Bennetts sing, dance and act, but they have been the primary force behind the set building. "Lots of the sets were built in our living room and backyard," she says. "Building the sets at home makes sense - when they're done, we load it all on a truck and haul it in." This year for Anything Goes, the Bennett patio in Meitar held the entire deck of a ship.
The Landzbaums are another active family unit, who commute from Arad, a 40-minute trip each way. "This year, with all of us involved, we're more efficient than when it was just me. As a family, we're more organized and make sure everything is ready - the script is by the door, the sandwiches are made, and everybody has their shoes," says Dov Landzbaum.
Landzbaum studied acting as a kid. "I grew up in Chicago and for years, my parents paid for private acting lessons. So for me, I needed LOGON. Acting and singing are things I need to do. I serve as cantor during the High Holidays, but LOGON fills a place in my life."
Anything Goes is mother Iris's first show. "Our kids are very musical. Our daughter Dahlia was in Fiddler with Dov and in several other productions. This year, Dov, our daughter Leora and I are all onstage. It's a great thing for the family to do together. Sometimes on the way home, we sing all the songs in three-part harmony."
Myra Bennett says her children have benefited from participating in such a production. "They've met a very nice group of friends, and it's a marvelous confidence-builder. If they can get up and perform before a thousand people in a Jerusalem theater, it gives them a great feeling of accomplishment. I don't think either of them will choose the theater as a career - we all know how tough it is to make a living. But it's wonderful to have theater as a hobby, something that gives you an outlet for your artistic side."
LOGON claims many other loyalist families as well.
Frieda and Bob Gilmour have been members for years and now serve as co-producers. Bob is usually on stage, this year in the Quartet.
Gal Lifshitz grew up with LOGON, starting as one of the children in Music Man in 2001. Now, as a handsome young man, he plays the romantic lead, while his mother, Sarit, is a long-time member of the LOGON orchestra.
A mother-and-daughter team, Adinah and Keshet Margalit, choreographed this year's show. Both are LOGON veterans - mother Adinah choreographed parts of Fiddler in 1996, and Keshet was a solo dancer in 1983's The Merry Widow.
Golda and Cyril Simkins are LOGON institutions: Golda has been on stage in every production since 1984, and Cyril is the mastermind behind the computer system that produces the Hebrew subtitles.
Even this year's director, Helen Eleasari - known to Jerusalem Post readers as Helen Kaye - has a family feel about her. Eleasari was the director of LOGON's biggest hit, Fiddler on the Roof and returned this year after a 10-year hiatus.
As director, Eleasari serves a multitude of functions. "I act up a storm when I'm directing," she says. "My job as director is to bring the script to life - to make it leap off the page and strut around on its hind legs. In Anything Goes, I've been lucky - there are gifted people in the whole cast and crew. The choreographers have done wonders with a very complex script," she says.
"Everyone will recognize the music from Anything Goes, says Eleasari. "Cole Porter wrote it in 1934 at the deepest part of the Depression, so he filled it with romance and fantasy; with handsome boys who make good; girls who get the men of their dreams; wealthy tycoons - and a few gangsters to spice it up. It's a sparkling review, and audiences have loved it for generations," she says.
"There are families in LOGON, but on stage everyone plays their stage personas, and I direct as though they are all individuals. If someone isn't concentrating, I speak up. If someone has his hands in his pockets, I tell him to take them out. If a child is being a bit unruly, well, I deal with that, not the mother," says Eleasari.
"LOGON may be a family affair, but for all of us at LOGON, the play's the thing," she says. "Anything Goes is the best of American musical comedy - it'll delight just about everyone."
Anything Goes will be performed from February 13 - March 9 in various theaters around the country.
For tickets and showtimes,
call (08) 641-4081
or visit www.lightopera.2ya.com