From Tel Aviv to Tinseltown

Israeli producer Pahis mixes local theatrical projects with forays into US film and community work.

uri paster 224 88 (photo credit: )
uri paster 224 88
(photo credit: )
Hollywood attracts hopefuls from the four corners of the earth, but few arrive with as many projects as Israeli producer and director Uri Paster. Sitting in a French café in Los Angeles, accompanied by his assistant/translator Shlomit Basmat, Paster rattled off four movie and theater projects, and that's just for 2008. Unlike many of the starry-eyed newcomers to Tinseltown, Paster comes with a solid record of accomplishments in his native country. At 24, Paster became the youngest resident director for Habimah, Israel's national theater, and in the following 12 years won seven Israel Theater Awards. His productions included Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Cry the Beloved Country, Lost Among the Stars and King of the Jews. His real forte is directing musicals, such as Grease, Peter Pan, The Wiz and Kazablan. Four years ago, he branched out into movies and directed King of Beggars, which became the first Israeli film to have its world premiere in the United States. Now, at 46, Paster is ready for his Hollywood closeup. His first project is the musical film Sold Out!, a contemporary take on the biblical story of Noah's Ark, with a twist. Noah is presented as history's first stage director, and he puts the animals through auditions before they are assigned places on the ark, or rejected. The cast of characters gives new meaning to the word multiethnic, reflecting the roles of Noah's three sons - Shem, Ham and Japheth - as the forefathers of all mankind. And mankind, in this case, includes an Algerian musician, a Reform rabbi, a black rapper, a hassidic tenor, a Hungarian stripper, a Chinese opera singer, a French pop vocalist, Jewish kids and, for good measure, a bisexual producer. Everyone, though, speaks English. The ark itself becomes the setting for a Broadway show, with Noah's wife as the producer. Paster wrote the script and the lyrics to songs adapted from popular operas and biblical themes, while Ori Vidislavski did the musical arrangement. Israeli actor Shahar Sorek, who starred in King of Beggars, is the coproducer. Paster said that he received seed money for Sold Out! from the same British and American investors who backed King of Beggars. IN LATE September, Paster will return to Israel to direct his own play, Goldenman, at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv. The title character is a wealthy New Yorker in his early '60s who combines the less lovable traits of the protagonists from three Moliere plays - he is stupid, a social climber and a hypochondriac. The setting of the musical is New York, and the songs and dances reflect the 1950s era, said Paster. Later in the fall, Paster will return to Los Angeles for another movie project, titled Elsa Stein, which goes back in history to the roots of the Zionist enterprise in Palestine. In 1903, a group of Jewish university students from Berlin arrived in Jaffa, lured by the promise of Baron Rothschild to provide land for a settlement in the Galilee. These Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) soon encounter Arab friendship and hostility, Turkish officials, love affairs, high hopes and disillusionment, until, in the end, only Elsa, the title character, sticks it out. To wind up the year, Paster plans to establish a Jewish Academy for the Art of Musicals as a training ground for Los Angeles teens between 13 and 18. The youngsters will receive instruction in singing, dancing, drama and Hebrew for three months, and then join professional actors in eight performances of the Israeli comedy Kunilemel, in time for Hannuka. Paster was born and raised in Afula, and when he was 10, his parents took him once a week to a live musical. "I fell in love with the singers and dancers," he recalled, "but I was most interested in what was going on behind the scenes, how the show was put together." He performed in an entertainment troupe for part of his military service and afterward studied directing and writing at Tel Aviv University and in London. Of his current projects, Paster said, "I don't want to become an American director, but I do want to make modern Jewish movies. I've found that American Jews care more deeply about maintaining Jewish culture and understanding the Jewish past than we Israelis."