‘Rewrite the World’ journeys road less traveled

Israel Musicals unveils a homegrown, humorous, heartwarming show of biblical proportions

CAST MEMBERS in the ‘Shine a Light” sequence of ‘Rewrite the World’ belt out a tune during a recent rehearsal (photo credit: MEIRA ABRAMOWITZ)
CAST MEMBERS in the ‘Shine a Light” sequence of ‘Rewrite the World’ belt out a tune during a recent rehearsal
(photo credit: MEIRA ABRAMOWITZ)
Songs, movies, books, plays, restaurants, clothes and more – there’s something comfortable about old favorites that keep drawing you back to them again and again. Still, sometimes you feel an adventurous urge to turn onto a road less traveled and boldly venture forth into uncharted territory.
Knowing that they have to sell tickets to stay solvent, theater companies often opt to stage popular plays with famous titles. This provides them with something of a safe bet, lending a boon to publicity that helps boost ticket sales.
Israel Musicals, one of the first English-speaking theater groups in Jerusalem, has followed that route for years. Founded in 2007, it has scored a string of box office and critical successes with well-known standard-bearers such as Man of LaMancha, The Sound of Music, 1776, Cats, Evita, The King and I, The Producers and others.
This time they are taking a risk. Rewrite the World is a play with no name recognition at all – because it is an original play. It was written by Yisrael Lutnick, a talented actor, musician and director with a degree in music and voice from Yeshiva University, who grew up under the influence of classical music and great Broadway musicals.
The play may be unknown, but it is bursting with energy, humor, music and dance – powered by musical director Tom Zilbershteyn, choreographer Rosa Howden and a cast of talented and enthusiastic actors, such as Yossi Mark, the lead, who will also be singing backup in Eurovision Song Contest this year.
Inspired by a real-life story of a troubled youth, the play tells a very human tale about a modern Jewish teenager named Aaron Cohen attempting to save his parents’ marriage and cope with his own demons. Faced with a problem that seems bigger than he can handle, he tackles it with everything he has, seeking guidance by reaching back through the pages of history. The play is set in the modern world, but it also transports us to biblical events at the time of the Exodus from Egypt, where we gain insight into the life and times of historical figures such as Moses, Aaron and Korach. As the protagonist struggles to achieve the impossible, he discovers friendship, courage and the power of forgiveness.
At a recent rehearsal where the cast was gearing up for opening night, The Jerusalem Post was struck by the spirit, energy and earnestness of the charismatic cast – an intriguing blend of adults and teens, seasoned professionals and relative newcomers to the stage whose excitement was evident. We were also favorably impressed by the original music and choreography.
Zilbershteyn, the musical director, says, “The music of Rewrite the World is brilliantly written and planned. The music itself is very diverse, with songs in different genres, including uplifting disco, soulful ballads, marches, gospel, bluegrass and even a bit of rap. Despite the large variety in styles, all of those differences feel entirely necessary and connect it all together in some strange way.
“Throughout the play, similar motifs and melodic phrases pop in and out of the different tunes, making us feel as if it is all familiar to our ears (in a good way). You can tell that the music is written not just for the sake of showcasing good songwriting ability. It is all there to a specific purpose, and that purpose is to help enhance the story, in a way which only good music can.
“Yisrael Lutnick managed to capture the essence and sound of the best Broadway productions and take it to a personal place.
This musical has a sound of its own, and together with the great choreography by Rosa Howden, the experience will undoubtedly be memorable. I am certain that anyone in the audience will leave the theater humming the tunes for days!”
We interviewed Zvi Goldfeld (Rabbi Bergman/Aaron the Priest), a dentist who happens to also be an extraordinary singer, dancer and actor.
For years, you have played numerous iconic roles, such as the king in The King and I. How is acting in an original play different from that?
We are used to interpreting roles in plays that are classics. Usually when you come to a play, you already know the play more or less and what you are expected to do. But here, taking part in launching something new, we feel more a part of the creative process of defining it – we are a partner in everything. It makes for a lot of excitement.
Another special thing about this play is that the story takes place on two levels: first, the modern one, where Rabbi Bergman, the classroom teacher, interfaces with Aaron, beleaguered with problems at school and at home. Second, the biblical part where Aaron the student finds guidance from the biblical Aaron to solve his problems in the present day.
Each of the characters has kind of a counterpart from the modern times and the biblical times. It’s intriguing for the actors to play dual roles that sometimes are similar to each other, sometimes opposites. In my case, Rabbi Bergman is a funny and easygoing extrovert, while the biblical Aaron is composed, stern and formidable. Things like that are interesting and challenging for us as actors.
What do you feel are some of the play’s other strengths?
The play has some very funny parts and some highly touching and emotional parts. This dissonance of laughter and tears – I think everybody will find something in it to identify with and respond to.
And the cast? Amazing! Wow – that was one of the greatest surprises. Everybody is so talented, keen and excited. Seeing all this young energy makes me feel young again.
RIVKA DERAY (Alicia), a gifted young actress who made aliyah two years ago and has already played lead and key roles in several local productions, is also enthusiastic about the play.
“I absolutely love it. It’s got a lot of heart. It also has a fresh point to make that hasn’t been made before in a musical, addressing topics like divorce and family problems, adoption.
Our cast – it’s so solid. Each person really cares. There’s this interconnectedness; we’re all just working as a team to bring this thing together, to make it happen. We’ve all got each other’s backs and you can’t ask for more than that in a show.”
What do you think aboutthe play’s shifting gears back and forth from modern to biblical?
I mean, it’s whiplash – but that’s what you want in a good musical, something that’s like, “Oh my God this” and “Oh my God that...” It covers a lot of emotional ground.
Following Aaron Cohen’s journey, toward the end, I get to interact with him as his friend Jon’s sister and tell him, “Hey, you made a difference. You’ve done something. Your main objective is a little cuckoo, but with all your trying, with all the heart you’ve put forward, you’ve succeeded with someone that so many people have failed with – my juvenile delinquent brother. Seeing how much Aaron changed him – it’s just overpowering, emotional. It speaks for itself.
A KEY guiding spirit behind this play is Haim Tukachinsky, the musician beloved by the theater community who was struck by a car and killed last year. Writer/director Yisrael Lutnick (who also plays Aaron Cohen’s father in the play) explains.
“I was thinking about bringing this play to the stage, but I wasn’t sure that it was ready. The main person I wanted to talk to was Haim Tukachinsky. We met a couple of weeks before he died, to go over the orchestrations, the concept and possible staff. I sent him some of the recordings of the songs and he was all gung-ho, so we were set. Knowing that Haim, my partner in all of our productions and concerts over the years, was going to be doing the music gave me the confidence to plan the show. I later found out from his mother that he had told her that he was going to do two more musicals and then go back to classical music. He was going to do Cabaret for AACI and then do Rewrite the World – that was it.”
Deray adds, “As soon as I knew that Haim wanted this musical to happen, I was sold – that was it. It’s really fun, it’s innovative, it’s such a great cast. I mean, it’s the gift that keeps on giving – I love it.
Are you bold enough to venture out to the theater to experience a fresh and original play? Odds are that – like us – you’ll be glad you did.
Rewrite the World premieres on Sunday, March 24 at 8 p.m. at the Gerard Behar Center. Shows will be held on March 24, 25 and 26 in Jerusalem, March 27 in Ashkelon, and March 31 in Modi’in. Tickets are available from Israel Musicals website, israel-theatre.com/tickets and by telephone at 077-450-6012.
Find out more about what’s going on in the Jerusalem English theater community at jetcommunity.org.