Egypt in Jerusalem

An Elton John-Tim Rice rock opera comes to the Hebrew University

Actor (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Elton John is one of the most successful artists in pop music history, but around 13 years ago he changed tack a mite when he joined forces with celebrated lyricist Tim Rice to create Aida , a smash hit musical based on the storyline of the original Verdi opera.
The John-Rice production was first performed in this country in 2005, in Hebrew, by students and alumni of the Beit Zvi acting school in Ramat Gan, but now Jerusalemites and English- speakers from other parts of the country can at long last enjoy the original English-language version, courtesy of the Beit Hillel Theater Workshop troupe.
The first two shows took place at the Rachel Simon Hillel Theater at the Hebrew University earlier this week, but there are six more opportunities to catch the musical between February 3 and 11, at the same venue. Michael Berl occupies the director’s chair and Paul Salter is responsible for musical direction, with choreographer Adina Feldman making sure all the cast members make the right moves.
By his own admission, the musical – which, to give its full title, is known as Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida – was not too high on David Djemal’s list of must-listen-tos. However, after being entrusted with one of the three lead roles in the work – that of Egyptian military commander Radames – Djemal says he has become enamored with the songs he and the rest of the cast perform. “I never had any particular feelings for Elton John’s music. It was just that thing that my parents listened to sometimes,” he declares. “We were more a house of [’70s rock band] Queen, although it’s the same era.”
The other two lead roles in the musical are played by Noga Yechieli (Princess Amneris), and Miri Fraenkel, in the eponymous role.
Djemal is certainly into John’s music now and, tenderness of years notwithstanding, he has chalked up quite a performance résumé to date.
“I have been interested in theater ever since I was young,” he says. “I joined a choir when I was 10, and I was in a theater workshop a year before and the music and theater sort of developed together.”
Djemal’s British-born mother and Lebanese-born, Thailandbred, and UK-educated father certainly left plenty of raw material around the house for their young offspring to imbibe, and which duly fired his imagination.
“We had all these films around, like Oliver and The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady,” he recalls. “Actually, I was in My Fair Lady with Miri [Fraenkel]. She was Eliza and I was Freddy. That was about two years ago.”
Presumably, the 22-year-old is starting to feel like a seasoned veteran? “Not quite,” he laughs. “It’s all relative.”
Musical theater gradually captivated Djemal’s imagination.
“When musical theater works it is an amazing combination,” he observes, “because you use all these different media. You use music, and you use the stage and dance. You use all these different media of performance to create this sort of hybrid. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but sometimes it is really amazing because it creates a synergy, which in good musicals is wonderful to see and great to participate in.”
And it allows Djemal to put his talents and artistic bent to good use. “I really like to sing and I really like to act – mind you, I was never much of a dancer,” he confesses with a smile. Yet he notes he’ll have to find his feet soon. “The next show I am doing is A Chorus Line, so I will need to dance in that.”
Djemal has found himself a nice comfort zone. Not only has he collaborated with Fraenkel, he has also worked with the director before. “The first musical I did was a couple of years ago; that was Les Miserables, with Michael [Berl],” he says, adding that he had to be quick on the draw to accommodate a major last-minute change.
“I was supposed to be the secondary lead, and then the lead dropped out and I had to step in about three weeks before the show started. That was the first time I ever did musical theater. I did Shakespeare and I did a Woody Allen show, but I’d never done a musical before then.” Clearly, the lad is a natural.
Despite his gifts, after a while Djemal decided it was time to get some formal education under his belt, and attended the Yoram Lowenstein Performing Arts Studio in Tel Aviv for a year. The move, it seems, was motivated by basic existential needs as much as by professional advancement. “Before that I was doing Jerusalem community theater, which is amazing for what it is, but I want to get paid,” he declares with a chuckle.
In fact, Djemal is intent on furthering his thespian craft, and making a career out of acting. “It was a three-year course at Yoram Lowenstein, but I left after the first year because I decided it wasn’t the place for me, and I want to go to London to study at RADA [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] or LAMDA [London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art].”
Despite curtailing his stint at Yoram Lowenstein, Djemal feels he reaped the benefit of his time there. “I came out feeling like I have another language to use on stage. I am not necessarily completely fluent in it, and I am not necessarily going to use it the whole time, but it is another aspect which can give you complexities and all sorts of things, which was good for me.”
While one might understandably consider the music of Elton John much easier to negotiate than the original Verdi score, Djemal says he still had his work cut out for him on the current project. “The music is quite challenging. You listen to Elton John and you think: ‘Oh, it’s nice music, it’s catchy, but the music is actually quite complicated. Paul [Salter] is a maestro, but it has been a challenge for all of us to get the music right.”
In fact, says Djemal, the whole undertaking has been a challenge.
“The setting is Egypt, and it’s a big tragedy and it’s a story that’s based on an opera. Operas are, of course, very dramatic – and so is the story. We had to find a way to justify that, and to move from place to place and not to feel you are being melodramatic is a challenge.”
While Djemal is looking to spread his professional wings in pastures new, he says that for now, he is happy to further his craft in the burgeoning Jerusalem English-language theater scene. Prior to starting work on the current production, Djemal participated in an ensemble production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company with the AACI, while Fraenkel also worked with Encore.
“Jerusalem is an amazing community and it’s a great place to start,” says Djemal. “There is a nice feeling of being at home. Everyone is your friend, and there are people who are more professional and people who do it less professionally, and these are people I talk to if I have a problem, and then we all go out to eat together. That really creates a family feeling, which is wonderful. We all want to create a good theater experience for Jerusalem audiences.” • The Beit Hillel Theater Workshop will perform Aida at the Rachel Simon Hillel Theater at the Hebrew University on February 3, 4 and 6, at 6 p.m.; and February 9-11 at 8:30 p.m.
For tickets and more information: 588-3902, 581-7714 and