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Entertainment & Arts

For once, actresses get all the good roles

One microphone wasn’t working. The makeup lady hadn’t arrived, and that was the subject of much concern. The director was worried that a desk wouldn’t be removed from the third scene, and that someone would forget to turn on the street lamp prop.

The 27 members of the cast were laughing, pacing, doing their own ironing and singing scales, silly with pre-curtain anxiety. Some had vocal training, some didn’t. The youngest cast member was a high school senior waiting to hear back on her early-decision application to Princeton, the oldest a 64-year old math professor at a nearby college.

Yes, the scene at opening night of the Jewish Women’s Repertory Company’s performance of “Me and My Girl” at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center was one you might see behind the curtain moments before the first performance in any regional theater. What was less familiar was that the cast of this decidedly coed musical was made up entirely of women. But what was downright bizarre was that so was the audience.

The repertory, which has been putting on an annual by-women, for-women musical since 2005, is a theater company that caters to Orthodox Jews in Los Angeles. Any woman can try out, but Orthodox women won’t have to worry about the trappings of regional theater that make it impossible for them to participate: immodest dress, plots that involve touching men they aren’t married to, performing on the Sabbath and violating the prohibition against men listening to women sing.

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That last prohibition is actually on the onus of men. They are not allowed to listen to women singing; women are not barred from performing in front of men. But as one actress said, “As the saying goes, we don’t want to put a stumbling block in front of a blind man.” That means that no matter how modestly the women dress, men can’t come to the performance. But that hasn’t been a problem: The cast and crew have found plenty of women happy to fill seats.

The enterprise was the brainchild of Margy Horowitz, 38, an Orthodox mother of two who gives private piano lessons and has always loved musical theater. She saw that her friends were wistful for the performance opportunities of their youths, which took place mostly in all-girls camps and schools.

“I heard that a friend of mine in Chicago had decided to do an all-women production for the religious community,” Horowitz said. “I thought, this needs to be here. The women here who are religious graduate from high school and have no outlet for singing and dancing.”

Horowitz’s husband and friends thought there were too many impediments to making it work, but that only strengthened her resolve. Horowitz chose Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado, which was in the public domain. She funded the show herself for about $7,000. Ticket sales and donations grossed $15,000. After she reimbursed herself, Horowitz donated the rest to Aleinu, the family resource center of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. She continues to donate all net proceeds there.

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The productions have gotten more streamlined and professional each year — but it takes a little bit of work on the part of the performers and some imagination on the part of the audience to make a romance like “Me and My Girl” work as an all-female show. In the show, by Douglas Furber and L. Arthur Rose, music by Noel Gay, Cockney Bill Snibson learns he is a long-lost heir to an earldom but must become a proper gentleman — with a proper wife — to claim his fortune.

As you’d expect, the taller women play male parts, but the music has to be adjusted because of the lack of tenors and basses. The show is also slightly edited with its audience in mind: In “Once Upon a Mattress,” which the company performed in 2006, Lady Larkin becomes pregnant out of wedlock; to make the pregnancy less scandalous to the audience of very religious women and very young girls, Horowitz added that Larkin and her boyfriend were secretly married but that the marriage was illegal.

Horowitz’s precautions are not without reason. “We had a few women walk out because Miss Adelaide was wearing a skirt with a high slit when we did ‘Guys and Dolls’” in 2007. This year, there are very few changes — just the rewriting of a few “damns” into “darns” — and that’s the way Horowitz likes it. “I wouldn’t want to do ‘Grease’ because I’d have to change it so much that it wouldn’t be recognizable.”

But talent and professionalism aside, what is so moving about these productions is how much sacrifice goes into being able to meet the logistical demands of a show.

At rehearsal at Temple Beth Am’s ballroom two weeks ago, the schedule-juggling by the show’s overscheduled cast and crew was on display.

Dahlia Carr, 38, a rheumatologist and mother of two small children, bounced the 5-month-old baby of another cast member whose scene was up. Carr played the Duchess in this year’s show, but she played Reuben in last year’s performance of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” when she was pregnant. (Seven of the 12 brothers were pregnant in the performance.) Alissa Rimmon, 49, who played Sir John and was also in charge of props, has six children but managed to show up on time. Sabina Levine, 36, who played Bill, has three daughters and is part of a start-up business. Karen Holender, 31, gave birth just as rehearsals began and only now had started leaving her 4-month-old at home while she practices.

Though much of the stress involved in getting out the door would stop many women from even auditioning, these women are so grateful to have a venue to express their love for performing.

“It’s definitely a sacrifice,” said Rimmon, whose daughters come to each show but whose son stays home with his father. “I have to have dinner on the table, and I have to ask my family permission, because I want them to know that I’m going to be away a lot.” Rimmon, like some of her cast mates, wears a wig throughout the show, not just to look like the man she’s playing but to fulfill the Jewish requirement for married women to cover their hair.

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For other women, these demands make the show a necessity rather than an obstacle. “There has to be more to a person, more depth, than just going to work and going home,” said Daphne Orenshein, 43, who teaches fifth grade at a local yeshiva and has four children.

Kelila Siciliano, 30, who has gone through several major life events in the last few years, hasn’t missed a performance in six years. “Everyone said I wouldn’t be able to do this while I was planning a wedding, that I wouldn’t be able to do this while I was pregnant, and that I wouldn’t be able to do this with a baby.” (It was her baby that Carr was holding during rehearsal.) “Well, I’m still here.”

“I always say this is like Shakespeare, but in reverse,” said Horowitz, who co-directs and does piano accompaniment. “Back then, all the roles were played by men.”

True, but back then, everyone was allowed to attend the show, which is a sore point for a few cast members.

“Honestly, the most annoying thing is that my guy friends can’t come to the show,” says Lara Berman, 31, who plays Gerald. A worker at a Jewish nonprofit organization, she is part of the Jewish community, though she is not Orthodox. “They threaten to come in drag.”

But the more strictly observant women were not as annoyed. “At weddings, at synagogue, men and women are separated,” said one. “We’re used to only dancing in front of other women.”

This year, 52 women auditioned, up from 20 that first year. At 7 years old, the annual production is becoming a bit of an institution for the Jewish community. Horowitz has already announced next year’s show: “Les Miserables.” Most of the women interviewed said they’d be back to audition again, no matter what circumstances may come in their personal lives. But they weren’t thinking about next year as the theater filled for the show. They were just thinking about what would be happening in minutes: curtain.

The mikes were fixed and the makeup artist had finally arrived, apologizing and talking about traffic from the Valley. Wigs were adjusted, props arranged, pep talks given. Frantic worry was replaced by mere butterflies and pre-curtain giddiness as the cast was called to do vocal warmups.

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In a pale pink dress, her hair in 1930s pin curls, Holender, who played Lady Jacqueline, looked in the mirror and sighed. This is the first time she’s left her 4-month-old with a baby-sitter. Still, she had no regrets.

“I’m Orthodox,” said Holender, whose voice is trained and magnificent and speaks of another path her life could have taken, had she not chosen the one she has now. “I want to be able to sing and perform. Here, I can just be myself.”

calendar@latimes.com


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