The King of Siam in the Negev and beyond

The Light Opera Group of the Negev takes its production of 'The King and I' on a country-wide tour.

The ever evolving Light Opera Group of the Negev takes its production of 'The King and I' on a country-wide tour today Yul Brynner would have been proud. The quintessential King of Siam (not to mention Moshe Dayan in Cast a Giant Shadow) always had a soft spot for Israel. And it's likely that the upcoming Light Opera Group of the Negev's production of Rogers and Hammerstein's The King and I would have left him saying more than "et cetera, et cetera". LOGON's 27th annual production follows the English language community theater's trend in recent years to showcase popular musicals, instead of the short and full-length operettas by the likes of Gilbert and Sullivan that it originally commenced with back in 1981. Following the success of its presentations of Broadway musicals such as Oklahoma, Fiddler on the Roof, The Most Happy Fella, Pajama Game, Carousel, The Music Man,and Hello Dolly, this year's production of The King and I propels the non-profit theater group far beyond its original vision, says long-time behind the scenes member and King and I co-producer Frieda Gilmour. "We're becoming more and more professional. The standards have risen tremendously over the years," says the British-born Beersheba resident as she juggles last-minute details readying the production for its country-wide tour which begins and closes with hometown shows in Beersheba on February 18 and March 12, with shows in between in Jerusalem, Kfar Sava, Or Akiva, Netanya, Haifa and Tel Aviv. Consisting entirely of volunteers, LOGON's actors and production team is the only English-speaking amateur group that tours the country with its shows, a process that presents a challenge for Gilmour and her co-producer, the venerable 85-year-old Paul Hare. "The challenges of an all-volunteer group putting on a show is tremendous. With 52 people this year, it's not just a matter of running to a town and putting on a show. There's costumes, sets and transportation to worry about. We have two buses hired this year to take us around," says Gilmour. But conditions have improved somewhat, she admits. The crew no longer needs to store the sets in between each show. "In the old days, we had our bus following the sound and lighting truck back home, and at 3 a.m. we had to unload the set each night and store it in my husband's factory. Now, thank goodness, we're able to keep it in their truck in between shows," she says with a laugh. With so many tasks, and so much time invested in rehearsals and traveling, Gilmour finds one common bond among the crew members that keeps them going - a love of theater. "It's very much a labor of love for all of us. For instance, the couple who built the scenery are absolutely wonderful. They built the set in their backyard, and many of us went there to help them. It took a full six months," she says. The show's professional staff - director Yaacov Amsellem, musical director, David Waldmann, and choreographer Osnat Kashi - have "meshed beautifully," says Gilmour, providing a cushion of experience for the cast, which features 23 actors under the age of 18. "Many of the young actors are children of Anglo olim who learned their English at home, the second generation of LOGON actors," says Gilmour. As such, one of the predictable evolutionary developments in the group is the introduction of more and more Hebrew. "More native Israelis are joining and performing, and the original English speakers are slowly dropping out. This year for the King and I, in a first, most of our rehearsal instructions have been in Hebrew, and someone's translating it into English for those that need it," she says. Despite the infiltration of Hebrew speakers in the cast, the same cannot be said of the audience, which according to Gilmour, continues to consist almost entirely of native English speakers. Even in the familiar environs of the south, LOGON is largely ignored by the mainstream media and the local population. "We're still not really known down south beyond the Anglo community. Even when we call the local press, it's usually 'who' and 'what,'" says Gilmour. "When we perform in Beersheba, the audience contains friends, family and co-workers, so there's more native Israelis in the crowd. But elsewhere, it's still predominantly an English-speaking crowd. But we do have simultaneous translations into Hebrew, and this year, for the first time, we're offering translations into Russian as well," she adds. With that growth, one of the chief challenges facing LOGON is funding. Gilmour admits that raising money has been a struggle. "Most of our funding comes from ticket sales. In the past we've relied on donations to make up the slack, but lately they haven't been coming. We also get a grant from the Ministry of Science, Education and Culture, and a small grant from the Beersheba Municipality," she says. Gilmour's title as co-producer finds her taking care of everything from booking venues, to placing ads, to bookkeeping, to worrying about costume alterations. But she wouldn't have it any other way. "My husband joined LOGON as soon as we moved to Beersheba, and I got sucked into doing administrative work. I don't want to be on the stage, it's not for me. I can't even make announcements," she laughs. Come show time for the next month, Gilmour and her fellow theater lovers will be breathing and sleeping all aspects of The King and I, including performing, setting up, breaking down sets, et cetera, et cetera. For information about venues and dates of performances and to order tickets: (08) 653-2126