If you poison us, do we not sing?

Way Off Productions presents its original musical based on the classic black comedy ‘Arsenic and Old Lace.’

arsenic musical 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
arsenic musical 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Sara Halevi, the creative director of Way Off Productions, is excited. Her theater company is starting out with a bang, putting together the world premiere of Arsenic and Old Lace as a musical. Joseph Kesselring’s classic black comedy has been performed countless times around the world since its inception in the early 1930s and was made into a movie in 1944. But Way Off Productions’s musical adaptation of the play provides a unique twist to the already twisted tale of the Brewsters. “Every time a play is produced, every actor provides a fresh interpretation of the character,” says Halevi. “We have our own twists.”
Set in Brooklyn in the 1920s, the story opens with two seemingly harmless elderly sisters, Abby and Martha Brewster, discussing their latest “good deed.” “The two sisters poison old men who are lonely and don’t have families,” explains Halevi. “They put arsenic and cyanide in elderberry wine and kill off these lonely old men as an act of charity and bury them in their basement.”
They have three nephews. Teddy (Ira Skop) believes he’s Teddy Roosevelt. Jonathan (Dale David Boccaccio Honor) is a sociopath who murdered 12 people for no reason, with his accomplice Dr. Einstein (Michael Cohen). The third nephew is the lead character, Mortimer (David Hilfstein), who is a successful theater critic, recently engaged to Elaine Harper (Sonia Nizny). Mortimer seems to be the only normal character in the Brewster family, desperately trying to cope with the insanity in his midst.
“Mortimer is usually a very composed individual in his life,” says Hilfstein. “But this particular day, so many different things are happening that he loses it. So what you see on stage is Mortimer having a day from hell.”
For Hilfstein, who has been in theater for eight years, this is hisfirst leading comedic role. Last year he was cast as Mark Cohen in theIsraeli premiere of Rent. Though he enjoyed his rolein the Broadway classic, he says he loves comedy and that the role ofMortimer in Arsenic, the Musical! is perfect forhim. “It’s a great comedic role, very physical,” he explains.“Balancing between all the levels of excitement on that day is whatmakes Mortimer such a fun character to play.”
Adding to the excitement is the musical aspect of this production. ElliSacks, the composer and lyricist, wrote the songs forArsenic in 2003-2004. The Way Off adaptation of theplay is the first time that one of Sacks’s musical productions is beingperformed. “A musical suggests a different world,” says Sacks. “Youtake a scene and go off into a daydream or a heightened sense ofreality or (in Arsenic’s case) an even moredistorted sense of reality. Whatever you want to bring across, you canbe much more exaggerated and really push the boundaries.”
Despite this profound insight into the world of musicals, Sacks andHalevi and the rest of the cast and crew agree that this comedy islight, fun, free of depth and complexity, and perfect for Jerusalemaudiences. “This play is one of the purest comedies I’ve ever seen on astage,” says Halevi. “I rarely do comedy. I much prefer drama because Ithink bad comedy is a disaster. But this play has so many differenttypes of comedy – clever banter, physical comedy… I think here inJerusalem, life can get very heavy and it’s refreshing to do somethingthat’s just for fun.”
As much fun as the cast is having, there is also a significant level ofseriousness involved in accordance with Way Off’s objective of becominga large-scale theater company with paid actors. “My goal was to attractmore professionals so there would be professional working stage actorsin Jerusalem because there are practically none,” claims Halevi.”
In fact, most of Arsenic’s cast is made up ofprofessionals, including Hilfstein who was a professional actor in NewYork before making aliya, working in various Off-Broadway productions.Nikki Simon (who plays Abby Brewster) has 20 years experience intheater; Alona Cole (Martha Brewster) is a professional singer andrecorded an album with Sony-Epic; and Chanan Elias (who playsWitherspoon and Gibbs) is the musical director of the play and hasextensive experience in the many fields of showbiz – music, theater,acting, producing, directing.
“We want to get in shape for bigger things,” says Sacks. “We’re lookingideally for a producer who would be willing to take it to a full cast,full set, full production, full band, full orchestra, and hopefullywe’ll make it to Broadway. That’s the ultimate dream.”
Arsenic, the Musical! will be playing until June 25 at theAACI in Talpiot. For tickets and details, call (02) 566-1181 or visithttp://bit.ly/arsenic2010.