Off to See ‘The Wizard’ at Tiferet Bet Israel

Rebecca Begnaud, Leah Stein and Alondra Santos-Castillo as the Fighting Trees | Photo provided

For the first time in the synagogue’s 29-year history, Tiferet Bet Israel (TBI) in Blue Bell will unite families, synagogue members and others to follow the yellow brick road through its production of The Wizard of Oz.

A cast and crew comprised of both members and non-members will put on four performances of the musical from March 8 to 11 at the synagogue.

Michael Wasserman, the producer, comes from a theater background, while Lou Fromm, the assistant director, comes from a film background. Fromm said the two always wanted to put on a production at TBI together, and the synagogue’s executive director supported the idea.

Though the cast has been in rehearsals since December, the behind-the-scenes work began months before, said Rob Heller, the show’s director.

Heller said one goal TBI had in putting on a musical was to reach out to the community. An adjunct faculty and production director at Montgomery County Community College, Heller said he was brought on board to help. Many of the people involved in the show, outside of TBI members, have a connection to the college.

“It was really exciting to me, as a Jew myself, to combine two worlds that are very interesting to me,” Heller said.

In deciding what the musical should be, Heller said the synagogue considered shows that were iconic, would allow a diverse range of ages to participate, contained some fantastic elements and had some room for creativity.

“When we were talking about how to do this incredibly spectacle-driven show on a community theater budget … I was saying, ‘Why are we doing this at a synagogue? Why do this show?’” Heller said. “It struck me about it that it’s based on a story. That it’s really about storytelling, and how we can do that collectively, and thinking a little about the Jewish tradition of vaudeville and Jewish theater.”

Inspired by the show’s location, he incorporated Jewish elements. That includes inspiration from Jewish actors such as the Marx Brothers, Rodney Dangerfield and Mel Brooks, projection work and cos-

tumes influenced by Jewish artists, and a klezmer band that plays accompanying music.

Heller said The Wizard of Oz has themes that resonate with Jewish values.

“There’s an element of community that’s put out through this whole piece,” he said. “Whether that’s the Munchkins, whether that’s the Ozians, whether it’s the Winkies, whether it’s the Monkeys, there’s this whole sort of communal vibe to it. It kept reminding me of Fiddler on the Roof.

Several families make up members of the cast and crew, such as an entire nuclear family and three generations of another.

Fromm, for example, is working alongside his daughter, Jamie, in the cast. She is a senior at Abington Friends School and plays Dorothy. For them, The Wizard of Oz represents a last hurrah before Jamie Fromm graduates.

“I have to be very selfish and say, ‘Jamie’s going to college in a couple months,’ so for us to be able to have this little project together over the last couple weeks and months, it will be memorable for me as she moves on to other chapters in her life,” Lou Fromm said.

Jamie Fromm said performing this show in her community, in addition to participating in such a classic musical, made her excited about the production.

“Getting to see [my dad] put his input into certain blocking choices and to hear his advice on how I can do this differently, it’s just been a really nice bonding experience,” she said. “At the same time, it’s really fulfilling to me to see him in this different element, not to see him at my brother’s sports games or talking about his job during the day.”

For Heller, one of the most meaningful aspects of the show is the diverse range of ages represented in the cast. The participants range from 5 to 80, with the youngest members playing the Monkeys, Munchkins, poppies and even Toto the dog.

A day that stood out to him was when they rehearsed a scene where the Monkeys attack the main characters. Heller said seeing the contrast between the young and small Monkeys against the older and larger protagonists, particularly the Lion, symbolized why he is passionate about community theater.

“The joy of learning and creating together is just really marvelous,” Heller said. “That’s what’s most important to me about Judaism and working at a community college and theater, which is just this idea of collaboration and community. Regardless of product, it’s the journey of getting there and who we meet and the relationships we create and the larger community we build each time we do one of these.”

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