Fabulous felines

The Israel Musicals production of ‘Cats’ makes its nationwide debut next week.

Cats production 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Cats production 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If you’re going to put on an Englishlanguage play in Israel, you might as well shoot for the best. Anyway, that’s the philosophy of Yisrael Lutnick, the founder and director of Israel Musicals, which is staging the famed Andrew Lloyd Webber production Cats throughout the country, beginning next week.
“I always wanted to produce one of the big Lloyd Webber shows because they’re so popular. Everyone loves them. It would be fun and challenging to put on,” says Lutnick, an immigrant from New York who established Israel Musicals in 2007 as the latest addition to the Englishlanguage theater community in Israel.
“I sent many requests to the show’s agent to license it and was always getting rejected, but last summer I finally got a positive response. I was ecstatic.”
Based on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot, Cats tells the story of a tribe of cats called the Jellicles who strive to ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new life. Boasting now standard songs like “Macavity,” “Old Deuteronomy” and “Memory,” the musical first opened in London’s West End in 1981 and then branched out to Broadway in 1982. Both productions were huge successes, entering the record books as the second-longest running show in Broadway history, behind Phantom of the Opera, and the fourth-longest running West End musical.
The Israeli production, directed and choreographed by Rosa Howden, with artistic and musical direction by Lutnick, attracted a slew of aspiring felines to its auditions, many of them, according to Lutnick, native Israeli acting graduates of places like the Beit Zvi School for Performing Arts and the Nissim Nativ Acting Studio.
“We were very surprised at how many great actors came out to audition, even though we made it clear the roles were largely volunteer. I think the attraction of being in a production of Cats is very large,” says Lutnick.
“Rosa’s [Howden] feet haven’t touched the ground since the auditions. She pumped her fist, bent her knees and went ‘Yes!’” adds Lutnick, who is joining the young cast in the role of theater cat Gus.
Lutnick’s evolution from cantor and rabbi to theater producer and actor makes for almost as good a plot as Cats. Growing up in Long Island, he developed a combined interest in music, theater and religion. The first show he saw was 1776 in summer stock in Upstate New York when he was eight.
“I was hooked, even though when they were singing about too many flies and it being hot as hell, I was experiencing the same thing in the barn without air conditioning where the show was being staged,” he recalls.
Leaving a promising future as a concert pianist behind, Lutnick went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in music and cantorial studies, followed by rabbinical ordination from Yeshiva University. For many years he worked as a full-time cantor in a Washington Heights synagogue. However, after coming to Israel for an extended visit 19 years ago, he changed direction and ended up staying here.
During his first years in Israel, Lutnick performed music at parties, recorded two albums of Jewish music and served as rabbi for a Mevaseret Zion congregation. But he kept his love of theater and acting on the back burner due to religious restrictions of performing together with women. All that changed for him after 9/11.
“After that cataclysmic event, I began rethinking what I was doing, and I thought it was necessary to go out and try to lift people’s spirits, most importantly my own,” he says. “There were notices for an audition for a show of Lloyd Webber songs called Any Dream Will Do, and I decided that I had to adapt a more lenient opinion about performing in coed productions.”
Lutnick auditioned and received the high-profile role of Joseph, and the theater bug was back full time. He began writing his own musical, If I Could Rewrite the World, which he produced by himself in 2007, marking the launch of Israel Musicals.
Since then, he’s put on one or two shows a year, ranging from The Music Man and The Sound of Music to Man of La Mancha and his childhood favorite, 1776.
But, like with the other, more established English theater organizations, it’s been a struggle to attract an audience in a country made up mostly of Hebrew speakers.
“Our real challenge is to introduce Israeli audiences to traditional Western musical theater as an art form,” says Lutnick, adding that Cats may provide the trigger. “Even before I put any ads in the paper, people were contacting us after hearing about the show on websites or through word of mouth, and it’s been a lot of Hebrew speakers.”
That’s must be because, as everyone knows, cats speak in a universal language.
Cats debuts on January 26 at the Gerard Behar Center in Jerusalem and will be staged through February 16 in Haifa, Modi’in, Kfar Saba and Givatayim. Details can be found on www.israel-theatre.com •