‘Tribes’ is theater theme

‘Tribes’ is theater theme


Writers team with JCC and BergenPAC

You’ve heard of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," the contemporary musical theater rendition of the story of the biblical Joseph and his brothers, aka the 1′ Tribes.

Well now, get ready for "Tribes," a new musical inspired by the same theme. The production will be workshopped this summer at BergenPAC in Englewood by the advanced musical theater students at the School of Performing Arts at JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, in anticipation of a later Broadway or Off-Broadway run.

Auditions for experienced actors, 9 to 16 years old, by appointment only, will be held at the JCC on Sunday. Call (’01) 569-7900, ext. 315.

The play’s creators, playwright/songwriter/director Matt Okin, an Englewood resident who teaches musical theater and improvisation to young people at the JCC, and composer/lyricist/solo artist Avi Kunstler, would seem to enjoy expressing the intersection of their artistic personae and Jewish identity in terms of clan membership. The two, who have been collaborating for years, belong to, among other performing arts groups, an improv troupe in New York City called Lost Tribes.

As they race to complete the book and lyrics for "Tribes," Okin and Kunstler are simultaneously staging a rock musical in New York. "Soul Searching, A Musical," showcased in the city’s Festival of New Musicals last September, is the pair’s fifth production together. They are already planning its sequel, which they’ve entitled "Returning."

After Deborah Roberts, director of the performing arts school at the JCC, became aware of Okin’s work about 10 years ago, she asked him to join the school’s faculty. More recently, following last summer’s successful workshop production of an original musical at BergenPAC that she facilitated, Roberts approached Okin to develop another.

This is Okin and Kunstler’s first project for the JCC.

"Workshops offer a wonderful opportunity for some of our more advanced students to work on a higher level than they can do on the main stage here," said Roberts. "A workshop of a new musical by known professionals is an exciting thing."

Roberts observed that the professional stature of the playwrights and the venue was expected to attract notice by theatrical agents scouting new talent, an exciting prospect for the JCC acting and musical theater students.

As part of the process of putting the show together, the JCC brings in artists in movement, acting, and voice, "so that the children will have quite a few specialized workshops in which they’ll be working on their skills," she noted.

In "Tribes," the biblical tribes are represented by 1′ residents of a suburban nursing home, in varying stages of deteriorating health. This is a collection of individuals from different cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, including different Jewish streams, a true reflection of the diverse Jewish community and other ethnicities in the area, observed Okin. But sharing similar circumstances and fate, they present a unified front, reflected in their opening ensemble number denouncing young people today.

The group soon transforms, however, into children, with each senior playing his or her younger self. The set, a nursing home lounge, gives way to a school cafeteria, the scene of fighting and discord. With the self-centeredness of youth on display and the obstacles to real communication presented by electronic gadgetry, relationships are strained to the breaking point.

As the characters mature with life experience that includes dealing with the suffering of a grandparent in a nursing home and other plot twists, "Tribes" becomes a lesson in how people with conflicting beliefs learn to get along and respect one another. Through music and dialogue, they share the details of their lives that explain their contrasting perspectives and lead to a discovery of common ground and whittling away of stereotypes.

But Okin and Kunstler are not content to stop there. In an e-mail, Okin summarized the play’s message: "Through this ultimate form of sharing and emotional communication, the disparate group of children comes to realize that only a deeper and more open understanding of each other will help them understand themselves and lead them through a unified and productive life."

"Tribes" will be performed on Friday, July ‘0, in the Cabaret Space at BergenPAC and twice on Sunday, July ”, at JCC on the Palisades. Call (’01) 569-7900, ext. 315, for ticket information.

read more: