Tales from the Beersheba woods

Light Opera Group of the Negev branches out with an award-winning Sondheim classic.

A SCENE FROM ‘Into the Woods.’ (photo credit: ARMAND PEREZ)
A SCENE FROM ‘Into the Woods.’
(photo credit: ARMAND PEREZ)
They say artists are not always on an even keel. David Waldmann would probably go along with that. Waldmann is the British-born musical director of the Beersheba-based Light Opera Group of the Negev (LOGON), the country’s longest running English-language theater company founded back in 1981 and, as such, is heavily involved in getting the ensemble’s latest show, Into the Woods, up and running.
The musical in question was written by Stephen Sondheim and, according to Waldmann, is it more than a little challenging. 
“I’d say it is the equivalent, musically, of climbing Mount Everest,” he declared. “The composer who I think is closest to this, in terms of the music, is Philip Glass,” he adds, referencing the 82-year-old Jewish American minimalist, whose oeuvre features such protracted cyclic works as Metamorphosis and Echorus. 
While Glass’s work has come in for wildly enthusiastic kudos as well as downright panning, the Sondheim offering has done very well for itself since it premiered in San Diego in 1986. It garnered a bunch of Tony Awards and a Laurence Olivier Award for Best Revival. The film adaptation didn’t do too badly either, with Meryl Streep getting an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, and a glittering cast that included Emily Blunt, Tracey Ullman and Johnny Depp. Critics and cinema-goers the world over alike gave the work a resounding slap on the back. 
Why does Waldmann think it is such a tough nut to crack? When we spoke, he and the rest of the LOGON crew had entered the home stretch and were gearing up for opening night in Arad on March 9. All told, the nationwide tour takes in eight performances, running through March 31 – with dates in Givatayim, Modi’in, Netanya, Ashkelon, Jerusalem and Ra’anana lined up, closing in the troupe’s hometown at the end of the month. 
“It’s like Glass’s music,” he explains. “You have all these elements that repeat, but each time they repeat they’re different. Then you get other elements and they all get mixed up – like the story itself.”
THE MUSICAL fuses the plots of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm and 17th century French writer Charles Perrault. Both of them scripted versions of Cinderella, who appears in the musical, as do characters from Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel. However, any idea that the storyline lends itself to delightful child-friendly tales of fairies, elves, kings, queens and cute little princes and princesses enjoying an idyllic existence in some peaceful paradise, would not be further from the truth. 
The script may be based on some of the most endearing and universally popular tales ever told, but we are not talking kids’ stuff. 
“It’s like a fairytale for adults. It becomes very dark. It starts off all jolly and then the second half is very sort of dark humor – a bit like Sweeney Todd,” he chuckles. 
It sounds like the audience is in for quite a ride. 
“The forest becomes a black hole, but there’s a lot of humor along the way. There are some very nice touches in there.” 
Even so, this is not exactly Gilbert and Sullivan fare. 
“It is American humor, very clever humor. It takes a bit of understanding.”
The cast and behind-the-scenes personnel take that into consideration in fashioning the end product. 
“We are lucky that we have some very good and funny actors. They improvise to make it even funnier,” says Waldmann. “There are a couple of scenes that are really hilarious. There’s a scene where they kill the wolf and they open up its belly.” Sounds a little Monty Pythonesque. “There is a bit of the absurd about it; there’s quite a bit of satire in there.”
By now, it had become clear that this is not just another musical. 
“This is pretty different from anything we have tackled before,” Waldmann notes, “or anything I’ve seen or done. I would say it’s more like comic classical music,” he laughs. “It’s like classical and jazz and light music. Philip Glass is the only comparison I can think of.”
Waldmann, naturally, wants us to enjoy the show, but cautions that it would be best to come mentally prepared for something of an adventure. 
“I think people will take the musical both ways,” he muses. “If people come with patience and they get into the story as it goes along, they become more interested and become sucked into the forest themselves.” 
Waldmann notes that quite a few of LOGON’s patrons over the years have been Israeli-born theater lovers who may not have full command of English and, thus, have struggled to follow the text. That is addressed by the addition of Hebrew surtitles projected above the stage.
WHILE THE LOGON production is not aimed at the junior crowd, Waldmann feels that the younger members of the cast have handled themselves with aplomb throughout the show’s lengthy preparatory work, which began back in September. The fledging thespians in the group include 13-year-old Gidi Naggan as Jack, and 12-year-old Avia Izakovitch in the role of Little Red Riding Hood. It seems that youthful insouciance has proven to be a boon. 
“The kids, no matter how difficult [the storyline and score are], they pick it up. We have some amazing young talent; they are literally kids. But the older ones, the more experienced actors, they find it much more difficult.” 
Sondheim’s work is more than a little testing. 
“It’s not something you’re used to, like just picking up a melody and you sing along, and you know what’s coming. With this show, everything is unexpected.”
Then again, Sondheim was not looking to cause his paying customers any grief. Neither are Waldmann nor the rest of the LOGON troupe. 
“You don’t feel how difficult it is. You can just enjoy it. There’s a lot of comedy, a lot of drama and a lot of fun – but for us to get there, we have to climb above the Everest.”
It can help to have some gifted colleagues on board to help smooth the way to the desired result. 
“Avia is wonderful and absolutely talented,” Waldmann enthuses. “She is natural and has got perfect pitch, and a lovely voice. She’s a wonderful actress and, actually, she’s a Hebrew speaker. In fact, most of the kids are Hebrew speakers, not natural English speakers.” 
That leads to an interesting delivery spread. 
“You can hear their accents a bit, but most of the audience are not English speakers. So you notice that some have a strong South African accent, some are American, some are English – so if you have a bit of a Hebrew accent, it’s not so terrible,” Waldmann laughs.
He says that the audiences around the country are in for an entertaining, absorbing and dynamic evening. 
“The good thing about the show is that all the energy is in the acting and the music.” 
That helps to minimize the constructional logistics. 
“The scenery is very cleverly designed. It’s minimal. Each part of it becomes something else in a different scene. It’s a bit like pop-up scenery.”
Given all the other demands and constraints of the work, making life a little easier in at least one aspect of the venture is a boon. 
“I think Sondheim was mad,” Waldmann posits, tongue in cheek. “With most musicals, the writer knows who he’s writing for and he tries to be catchy. Think of people like Andrew Lloyd Weber. This guy’s not interested in that. He just had an idea and took it as far as he could. He had no mercy on the singers or anybody else. It requires real talent to pull it off.”
Looks like that’s exactly what Waldmann, director Yaacov Amsellem and the rest of the crew have at their disposal. 
For tickets and more information: (08) 641-4081, or www.negevlightopera.com