With a little help from his friends — and “Friends” — Danny Maseng is working to reinvent Temple Israel of Hollywood’s (TIOH) annual gala.
Sure, the wine, dinner and honorees will be at the Hollywood Boulevard synagogue on the evening of April 27. But so will a number of Hollywood heavyweights, many of whom are also temple members, performing in an original biblical theatrical musical, “Let There Be Light.”
“Star Trek” legend Leonard Nimoy is participating — as “The Lord” — as are “L.A. Law” star Alan Rosenberg; comedian Wayne Federman; Keith Powell of “30 Rock”; Bob Odenkirk from “Breaking Bad”; and “Everybody Loves Raymond” creator Phil Rosenthal and his wife, Monica, who played the character of Amy MacDougall-Barone on the show.
Oh, and Michael Skloff, composer for the TV hit “Friends,” is lending his talents, too, for the project by Maseng, who is TIOH’s chazzan and musical director.
The musical, which will start at 8 p.m., tracks a handful of major biblical stories from the beginning of Genesis to the Jews’ arrival to Israel at the end of Deuteronomy. Maseng, who also is a playwright, actor, singer, writer and composer, put together the play’s music and script 25 years ago. He optioned it for Broadway and then eventually pulled it before it was produced. Since then, a version of it was performed in Minneapolis and at the Piccolo Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C. But the one that TIOH members will see has never been experienced by the public, he said.
“It never takes itself seriously except for a few points where it gets emotional,” Maseng said, while observing a recent late-evening rehearsal in the synagogue’s main sanctuary.
One of the scenes being rehearsed, “Manna,” captured this lightheartedness, depicting the Children of Light — the ensemble group composed of eight core cast members — wandering the desert and complaining to God about the manna-heavy diet.
“Basta, we want some pasta,” sang the ensemble, with Skloff, who also serves as the musical director of “Let There Be Light,” on the piano. “We thank you for our daily bread, but Lord we’d rather all be dead than eat another manna Parmesan.”
The musical includes a wide range of music — from musical theater, classical and rock, to pop, gospel and samba — and will be performed on the same stage that has seen speeches by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Harry Belafonte.
With the collection of talent participating, Maseng’s production promises to give a whole new meaning to “community theater.” Maseng also has recruited several professional stage actors from Broadway, seasoned stage managers and two costume design experts, Cliff and Michael Pershes. Cliff Pershes is the creative director at the fashion company BCBG Max Azria.
In many ways, the gala will be a blast from the past for the synagogue, resembling its fundraising “Midnight Shows” that ran annually from the 1930s to the 1960s at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre. Those featured names like Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.
As Skloff explained after a recent rehearsal, many TIOH members in the past also were the heads of major film studios.
“So when the head of MGM said to Judy Garland, ‘You are going to sing a song for my temple,’ Judy Garland sang a song for his temple.”
Skloff, a TIOH member, said he likes the idea of doing something fun and different for a fundraiser.
“Other than the usual — people get up and make speeches and maybe there’s a comic or maybe there’s someone singing a song.”
Another TIOH member, Monica Rosenthal, will play the role of Eve alongside her husband, Phil, who will play Adam. Monica Rosenthal converted to Judaism in 1989 when she moved to Los Angeles with her husband.
“The greatest art is religion,” Rosenthal said, explaining why she’s enthusiastic about the gala’s link of Judaism with musical theater. “You want to just be part of it.”
Maseng classifies his creation as a “musical theater dramedy,” an attempt to merge Jewish themes and biblical stories with entertaining musical theater. One example, “Mantras in the Mud,” sung by actress Mia Riverton and the Children of Light, portrays the Jewish yearning to leave Egypt and return to Israel.
For Maseng, the humor and meaning found throughout his musical renditions of biblical history are meant to show that the messages in the Torah are still widely accessible — especially if they’re taught in creative ways.
“This is not moldy subject matter that needs to be buried in a closet somewhere,” Maseng said. “It’s relevant, alive stuff that [still] has something to say.”
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