It sounds like the set up to an only-in-Jerusalem joke: What do you get if you put a love-struck King Solomon, an evil Crusader with a heart of gold, and a chain smoking Golda Meir all in the same room? If you add in a few catchy song and dance numbers and a heaping dose of feel-good American Jewish schmaltz, then let it simmer on the stunning stones of Jerusalem’s Old City, the result would be “Ah Jerusalem,” a musical in English aimed at tourists but that will have veteran immigrants and even native born Israelis tapping their toes.
The show, which was launched in February of this year, made its debut in a new location, the ancient Tower of David Museum, last week and I got a chance to catch up with both the show and its co-creator, local composer-lyricist Danny Paller.
Paller had a musical comedy epiphany: unlike other major travel destinations, Jerusalem, he realized, had no regularly scheduled evening entertainment for visitors. Other than stroll along the Ben Yehuda Street or visit the Mamilla shopping center at night, there’s not much for tourists, at least those who don’t speak Hebrew, to do after dinner.
Teaming up with veteran U.S. stage, television and film producer Bernie Kukoff (best known for TV’s “The Cosby Show” and “Diff’rent Strokes”), Paller created Ah Jerusalem exactly for those tourists. It made good business sense for the show’s producers, too, Paller – who’s been involved with community theater in Israel for many years – told The Times of Israel’s Jessica Steinberg, “The local scene is finite, whereas tourism is totally renewable and something the city is greatly interested and invested in.”
Ah Jerusalem initially aimed to be a regular at the Hirsch Theater at Beit Shmuel in Jerusalem, with shows scheduled twice every week. But as with any startup, Paller and his team – which includes an engaging cast of 7 and a behind-the-scenes crew of double that – have had to regroup.
Ah Jerusalem was performed once a month or so over the summer “as a way of testing it out on different audiences and exposing the show to people in the tourist industry,” Paller says. In August, the show was performed at the Gerard Behar Center. The show’s most recent setting, at the Tower of David Museum, is certainly the most picturesque and perhaps the most culturally fitting as well: after all, the plot takes place mostly in the Old City.
On the day we attended, several hundred people filled the outdoor seats and enthusiastically cheered on the Axelrod family of Indianapolis, Indiana, as they are sent on a mysterious time traveling visit through three different historical periods to recover a number of objects demanded by a magical “cherub” and family patriarch Charles’s long deceased Great Uncle Mordechai. who sings and raps to him in a Yiddish-tinged Hassidic dream, one of Ah Jerusalem’s best numbers.
The show’s plot won’t bowl you over with insights. Comfortably assimilated, the Axelrod family had originally intended to vacation in Cancun, not Israel. Bookworm-ish daughter Robin meets King Solomon who quotes from his own Song of Songs and asks her to marry him. Crusader bad guy “Philip the Mean” (who provides the shows biggest laughs, unapologetically wink-wink and nudge-nudging his way all the way to Monty Python and the Holy Grail) goes through an impromptu therapy session with Charles the psychologist. The whole family convinces a surly kibbutznik not to abandon her dreams and pack up to return to America. She is later revealed as Mrs. Morris Meyerson (look it up on Wikipedia).
Look past the plot, though, and it’s hard not to enjoy yourself: the tunes are catchy, the performers are talented, the sound design excellent, and the backdrop at the Tower of David can fill any senses not already engaged. Paller says that the show’s producers are now in discussions with the museum to have regular shows there.
This being Jerusalem, it’s never entirely possible to separate entertainment from education. And Paller says there’s more to Ah Jerusalem than just a pleasant way to spend 70 minutes. For the August show, five birthright Israel groups were in the audience, he explains. “Not only was there great energy in the hall, but the entire cast stayed after the show to talk to some of the groups. It was up close and personal, with them talking about their aliyah, their careers and their experience in Israel. It was amazing for the birthright students to see the show and then have an opportunity to hear their personal narratives and ask questions.”
It kind of makes you want to say ah, Jerusalem…
The next performance will be November 9. Tickets and information here.