Tel Aviv: Kazablan, Cabaret

  • Kazablan, 11/15/14 (Sat), Cameri
  • Cabaret, 11/16/14 (Sun), Cameri

I didn’t look at the theater columns until a few days after arriving in Tel Aviv, and realized too late that I had missed a Hebrew version of Fiddler on the Roof. Drats. It only played 2-3 performances before making way for the next show, which sounds like a waste of a lot of rehearsals (presumably they keep the sets in stock). Anyway, I wanted to see something Israeli, and the next weekend offered a show called Kazablan, a 1966 musical based on a play and movie – not Casablanca, but a 1954 Israeli play and its highly popular 1964 screen adaptation about a kid of Moroccan heritage struggling to fit into Israeli society. It was performed in Hebrew with English subtitles. I’d never heard of it, but I was evidently the only one judging from the reactions of all the Israelis I talked to. So it seemed a good choice. 

The show was set in Jaffa, then a poor village, in 1953 only a few years after the country’s founding. A macho Sephardic guy of Moroccan ethnicity Kaza, a rebellious take-charge type, falls for an Ashkenazi girl Rachel to her dad’s dismay – Sephardim apparently were looked down upon in those days. Meanwhile, the entire village has been served with eviction papers by nasty land developers who want to tear down the tattered buildings and create luxury homes. The residents contribute money for a legal defense fund, but when that is later found stolen, Kaza, as the Sephardic outsider, is immediately suspected and interrogated. A bit of sleuthing reveals that the real criminal is his rival in love.

The story is narrated by a Tevye-like garbage man who addresses God and audience in a Fiddler-esque manner; even his garbage bucket recalls Tevye’s milk pail. (The musical was originally staged in the wake of Fiddler’s huge success in Israel by the same producer, so I assume, without having seen the original play, that it borrowed some of its elements.) He plays a balancing role in discussions and arguments, and has a pregnant daughter who gives birth at the show’s end in a big finale. Nevertheless, the star is unquestionably Kaza and the focus is the discrimination theme, making it a strange cross between Fiddler and West Side Story. The original play was reportedly much harder edged, but here all ends well with a big bris number (how many chances will I get to see a circumcision on stage?) and the implication that both sides, all being Jews, will come together for the greater good.

The story was simplistic and the characters cartoonish, but it was undeniably fun. The campy old-style choreography was tacked on for the most part with no consideration of the song’s contents, making it closer to Bollywood than Broadway. Still, there were some clever bits. Many songs were obviously familiar to the audience, who clapped with the first notes. The more memorable numbers included “We’re all Jews, and that’s nice” (they pointedly include the “Schwarze”, meaning darker Jews), Kaza’s lively intro song about his self-dignity, a paean to Democracy (“where some are more equal than others”), and songs to Morocco and Jaffa. The tunes were tuneful if largely generic, though a few, especially in the second half, did have a more Middle Eastern sound. The best of those was the energetic “Circumcision Pageant” sung by a moyel (introduced abruptly in the finale) with an incredible voice. Other songs included an “Officer Krupke” rip-off (though well staged) by the young gang, a Fiddler-like gossip song, a treacly love song about birds in the sky and sea gulls on the shore, and a Jaffa tribute by a nightclub singer with an unclear relation to the story (she sneaks into several crowd scenes).

The discrimination problem referred to in the show was strictly Ashkenazi prejudice against Sephardim. The policeman comforts Kaza with the strange comment that discrimination would disappear in 30-40 years, which seems a pretty long timeline for the person involved (the line received a laugh). There was no Arab reference since this was Jew-vs.-Jew stuff, and it’s not clear if the remark was supposed to be serious. The characters do a lot of arguing and emoting in a loud and very Middle Eastern way. The surtitle translations were quite natural sounding for most part, though some of the goofy lines made me glad I couldn’t understand the original (I wish Miss Saigon had been the same). I was impressed that the surtitles were even there, but it’s a smart move given the large number of tourists in the city, a large proportion of whom are likely to be Jewish. The show is about Jews getting along, and the translations allows non-Israeli Jews to share in the fun. Bravo for that. The show, like many others at this theater, apparently has Russian surtitles on some nights as well, a tribute to the huge Russian-born population in the country.

The clever set design used six two-tiered platforms that the actors shifted around in various configurations to represent homes, shops, police station and such. The cast was as good as they needed to be for those stock characters, and the Tevye guy and Kaza both acquitted themselves very well. The voices were not always the best, especially for Kaza and Rachel (my friend suspected they ramped up the reverb to disguise the inadequacies), but I thought the less professional sound made them sound more natural in a way and actually enjoyed it. That doesn’t apply to the red-headed nightclub singer, who should have been better in the context of an entertainer.

This is no masterpiece and won’t be making its way beyond Tel Aviv shores anytime soon. Still, it’s entertaining fluff and certainly worth it if the theatergoer is Jewish and doesn’t take it too seriously. I’d see it again if only for the camp value.

Amazingly they put on an entirely new big-scale show, Cabaret, in the same theater the very next night. This did not have English surtitles, which made sense in a way; translation needs might have made differences in the direction and choreography that wouldn’t fit the original English. I know the show well enough anyway, so I went for it. The musical, of course, is set in Nazi-Era Germany and involves a Jewish character as a key player.

The director was an Israeli, but the show is clearly based on or at least inspired by the raunchy revival version of the show, though the theater didn’t allow for Broadway’s nightclub setting with the tables and chairs. It seemed to use different sets and choreography in some cases, and (I think) rearranged or revised some scenes – for instance, was the title song used as background music in the early scenes on Broadway? My memory’s a bit fuzzy. It had a much bigger stage than Studio 54, which it took full advantage of with a two-tiered set topped by the shabbily dressed orchestra nicely visible. Moving panels with doors represented various rooms and locations in a very fluid presentation, while video projections of old Berlin and Nazi marches and such provided another tier. The emcee was shirtless (fortunately without the painted nipples) but had a white expressionist face, making him a combination of Joel Grey and Alan Cummings. He   pops up constantly throughout the show in various guises, so that life really is a cabaret.

All numbers were exceptionally well staged and performed, very creative. Not everything was perfect: “Wilkommen” had an inconsistent mixture of German, French, English and Hebrew (though I guess I shouldn’t be commenting on a translation I don’t understand); the use of nuns was a bit too literal and tasteless in “Don’t Tell Mama”; “Two Ladies” had a lot more than two ladies; the levitating balloon in “Pineapple Song” was dumb; “Money Money” ends Act I too abruptly; the chorus is an unfortunate distraction in the great “What Would You Do?”; and “Cabaret” doesn’t need that silly angry ending. I still like the original version’s more subtle buildup to “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” – I don’t quite get why Fraulein Holt (Cliff’s prostitute neighbor) sings this – but seeing the Nazi salute on an Israeli stage was chilling. The emcee closed the show in pajamas obviously camp-bound, but surprisingly sports no yellow star; I wonder if that was a step too far for the producers.

The emcee (Itay Tiran) was wonderfully creepy, using his wiry body to great effect. He went beyond a mere imitation of Alan Cumming’s prototype in an original and superb interpretation. Sally was appropriately spirited and fortunately a good singer (not always the case for this show). Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz were excellent as well. Cliff and Ernst weren’t bad but gave the impression of “acting”, suffering by comparison with the rest of the cast. Fraulein Holt was also very good in a usually unsung (literally) role. The dancers in particular were superb, looking like they were enjoying every minute. It’s interesting that Cliff has only one number in this version, which itself is shared with Sally (his solo “Why Should I Wake Up?” is gone). Maybe they want to keep him from expressing his emotions to make him more like the camera of the original book and play. That’s probably thinking too deeply, though. The production itself, though not entirely convincing as an interpretation, was well executed and perfectly marvelously entertaining.

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