November 18, 2011
Chanukah: The musical
There are many ways to tell the story of Chanukah. Tap dancing is not usually one of them.
“I don’t know of any other congregation on the planet where both rabbis and their cantor are doing a tap number together,” said Cantor David Shukiar of Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks.
The cast of temple clergy and congregants will strut their stuff on the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza stage Dec. 10 at 7 p.m. and Dec. 11 at 2:30 and 7 p.m. in the original production “Benjamin and Judah: A Chanukah Musical,” the only Chanukah event at the venue for the entire holiday season.
The musical, set in modern times, tells the story of a 13-year-old boy named Benjamin who is bullied at school because he is Jewish. After deciding he doesn’t want to be Jewish anymore, Benjamin has a dream in which he is Judah Maccabee and relives the story of Chanukah. The experience revives his confidence and pride in his religion.
The show promises to be an epic one, and not just because of the subject matter. Between cast members and a choir, there will be almost 100 people involved, ranging in age from 3 to older than 70. Add in the congregants from the 700-family Reform synagogue who are designing the set, making the costumes and providing props, and the number of participants nearly doubles.
“It’s a very big production,” said Shukiar, who wrote the musical and is co-directing it with his wife. He also stars as Benjamin. Shukiar is a composer of Jewish music and musical theater. He has twice been honored by the Guild of Temple Musicians as best young composer.
The lead characters have been practicing since June, and the rest of the cast has been working on their parts since September. Shukiar is pleased with the progress.
“When people are really passionate about something, you can come up with some pretty remarkable results,” he said.
Stylistically, the cantor describes “Benjamin and Judah” as a mix of up-tempo, high-energy tunes and dramatic, soft ballads. There’s liturgical music, traditional Israeli folk dance, a march in the tradition of “Les Miserables” and even a “STOMP”-style number in which cast members use their bodies to create rhythms.
And don’t forget the tap dancing.
“Certainly tap dancing is beyond my comfort zone,” said Senior Rabbi Ted Riter, who will be tapping his way across the Thousand Oaks stage. “It’s fun to learn something new, and I’m very lucky that I get to be on stage with people who really know what they’re doing, and I get to fake it along the way.”
Just as important as the dance steps, however, is the symbolic value of the production, said the rabbi, who appears as Benjamin’s friend and Judah’s brother.
“It’s just exciting to know that there is a Chanukah show,” Riter said. “It’s a wonderful idea that there’s someplace in December that Jews can say: Hey, this is our story.”
That is what prompted Shukiar to create the piece years ago.
“With the influx of holiday programming focused on Christmas and all the wonderful music and feelings that are out there, I always felt very isolated,” he said. “‘Benjamin and Judah’ is my answer to that.”
Shukiar found the process of writing the musical about the Maccabean rebellion enlightening.
“When I first started researching this back in 1996, the first thing I found was how little I knew about the story of Chanukah,” he said. “This was really a struggle for religious freedom — not just Jewish freedom but religious freedom.”
The show highlights a historic struggle that is often overlooked by many who may be familiar with the miracle of the oil lasting eight days but who do not understand the surrounding circumstances, Shukiar said.
The temple’s goal in staging the production at the 400-seat Scherr Forum Theatre at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza is to bring the story to the entire community. “Benjamin and Judah” will be surrounded on the schedule by Christmas classics such as “The Nutcracker” and “A Christmas Carol.”
Tom Mitze, the cultural affairs director for the City of Thousand Oaks, said he’s excited to have the show.
“I think it will get a very good response. I’m happy to see it here,” he said. “Hopefully this will be a big hit and it will become an annual event.”
This is not the first time “Benjamin and Judah” has been performed. Some of its previous incarnations have taken place in New York, San Diego and, three years ago, at Temple Adat Elohim, where it was performed in the sanctuary.
Congregant Mitch Schwartz can’t wait to reprise his role as Antiochus.
“I very much enjoy being on the stage. It’s a wonderful thing,” he said.
As someone with experience juggling, doing magic tricks and performing as a clown, Schwartz is no stranger to the limelight. There’s something different about this show that touches his heart, though.
“One of the beauties of this production is the fact that we have so many segments of our temple community that come together,” he said. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful warm feeling to be involved.”
And, Schwartz said, there’s a universal — and modern — message that makes this telling of the story more relevant than ever.
“There’s a contemporary component to the show, and there is somewhat of an anti-bullying message and to stand up for your beliefs and your rights,” he said. “It’s the Chanukah story told in a way that I think adults and children alike will embrace.”