Not every musical is a big, splashy outrageously overwrought Disneyland on stage. No, some are smaller, more intimate and focused on characters and songs instead of stuff. These are the kinds of musicals Kevin Johnson, artistic director of Arizona Onstage Productions, prefers. And for one weekend only, he has mounted what’s sure to be—if we can judge from his past work—a well-presented and entertaining show.
The musical is Stars of David
. Johnson says his interest was piqued when a friend sent him a boot-legged recording of the show. “I knew immediately I wanted to do it.” However, it involved so many well-known lyricists and composers, arguments about royalties got complicated and licensing for productions was impossible. When they get all that worked out, Johnson jumped on it.
Stars of David
began as a book by ex-broadcast journalist Abigail Pogrebin. She had an idea to interview a whole bunch of Jewish luminaries, many from the entertainment field, and ask them about what their Jewishness meant to them. She started with those with whom she had some connection: Mike Wallace, who had been her boss at 60 Minutes
; Leonard Nimoy, who had attended Torah study with her parents; Gloria Steinem who was a family friend. When she was done, she had interviewed 62 folks, including Joan Rivers, Tony Kushner, Jason Alexander—even Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Pogrebin fashioned each interview into a self-contained little story, and her book was published in 2005.
It wasn’t long before there were thoughts of turning these little stories into songs. It was a complicated undertaking, and the participants included a who’s who list of Broadway musical theater aces. It was workshopped and revised and then re-worked some more, and the current version now includes a couple of songs/stories about folks who were not even a part of Pogrebin’s book. Gwyneth Paltrow is an example.
Johnson says that one of his favorite story/songs is “Lenny the Great,” Leonard Nimoy’s recollection of his great desire, as a child, to be a magician. He saved up until he was finally able to get the best trick in the magic store, but when he got it home, it was packed with anti-Semitic pamphlets and drawings.
Johnson has rented the Berger Auditorium at the School for the Deaf and Blind, which seats around 500, for the production. But it was the best place available for how the show needed to be staged, he says. “I’ve got a lot of seats to sell, and part of the problem is that so many people aren’t aware of smaller musicals like this one.
“And, of course it’s not just about Jews, and it doesn’t appeal just to Jews. We can all find ourselves reflected in these songs about people who we’ve heard about, and whose stories on some level feel like our own.”
The show features Liz Cracchiolo, Dennis Tamblyn, Jeremy Vega and Kelli Workman. Hank Feldman is music director.
Stars of David—A Musical Celebration
7 p.m. Saturday, April 15 and 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sunday, April 16
Berger Performing Arts Center
1200 W. Speedway $25-$35
Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission