The new season, with plays by David Mamet and Harvey Fierstein,
kicks off with a capital gala
If the political climate is getting you down, the Jewish Ensemble Theatre (JET) wants to lift you up with an evening of pure political comedy provided by the Capitol Steps, a popular satirical troupe based just outside Washington, D.C., and traveling the country to cover different sides of issues.
While the entertainment makes this season’s JET kickoff gala a little different, the event still will include dinner — in a strolling setting with main dishes before the comedians appear and desserts during an afterglow.
It all takes place 6-9 p.m. Monday, Sept. 18, at Temple Israel and contrasts with the schedule of four serious plays that will be staged October through May.
“Our fall gala has grown over the past dozen years, and we thought we’d change it up a bit before we get into the mainstage productions,” says Christopher Bremer, JET executive director. “We started out with small events in homes and had to move into a commercial hall to accommodate growing numbers of participants.
“We’re very thankful to Temple Israel for letting us use their newly renovated facilities to accommodate our larger crowd, and we welcome everyone looking for some laughs to join us. Funds raised from the gala support our outreach productions for students, who explore issues important to them by seeing the issues dramatized.”
Besides watching plays about bullying, students get an understanding of the Jewish experience through a production of The Diary of Anne Frank.
“This year’s mainstage theme is the ‘outsider,’ and the works of four outstanding contemporary playwrights will bring our attention to a subject that Jewish people have known throughout history,” Bremer says. “The gala also brings to mind an often-mentioned Jewish tendency — approaching life with humor.”
The Capitol Steps began as a group of Senate staffers who set out in 1981 to satirize the very people and places that employed them: Some staffers for the late Sen. Charles Percy were planning entertainment for a Christmas party — they decided to dig into the headlines of the day, and they created song parodies and skits.
With a supportive audience, some staffers went on to form the troupe, but not all of the current Steps have been staffers. Taken together, the performers have worked in 18 Congressional offices and represent 62 years of collective House and Senate experience.
Since they began, the Capitol Steps have recorded more than 30 albums and have been featured on NBC, CBS, ABC and PBS. They can be heard twice a year on National Public Radio stations during their Politics Takes a Holiday radio show.
“This program featuring the Capitol Steps moves JET into a new era,” says Elaine Sturman, JET board president who came up with the idea based on the success of booking the troupe years ago for an event supporting the Anti-Defamation League.
“Funds raised will help with an expanding outreach to young people as we begin our first year offering productions at the Detroit Film Theatre in the Detroit Institute of Arts. Last year, 5,200 students saw The Diary of Anne Frank, and with the new theater added, we’re hoping to reach between 7,500 and 10,000 students.”
Sturman is excited about the contemporary nature of the mainstage lineup, which begins with Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill by Lanie Robertson (Oct. 5-29).
“In telling about the late singer Billie Holiday — with 12 of her songs performed in the 90-minute production — we present a cautionary tale about life,” Bremer explains. “There are monologues that tell about her struggles facing racism and drugs, and we are thrilled that internationally acclaimed pianist Alvin Waddles will be music director and portray Jimmy Powers, a character developed to accompany the Billie Holiday character, the role of Lisa Lauren Smith.”
American Buffalo by David Mamet comes next (Nov. 16-Dec. 12). It delves into the lives of drifters planning a heist and enters into the experience of people living on the edge.
In Hard Love by Motti Lerner (April 12- May 5), romance and marriage are explored through two characters with different attitudes, some changing, toward faith and religious observance.
The final play, Casa Valentina by Harvey Fierstein (May 24-June 17) introduces members of a cross-dressing group as they cope with questions of identity and revelation as there is a move to turn the resort where they meet into a nonprofit.
“I’m very pleased to be directing two of these plays [American Buffalo and Hard Love] because I think audiences will find all of them very compelling,” Bremer says. “The playwrights represented this season have had great acclaim through a number of productions.”
Sturman, who has been active with JET behind the scenes for many years, wants audiences to watch the productions with opportunities that go beyond entertainment.
“We present each show to make our community understand ways of impacting others in positive ways,” she says. “With these contemporary subjects, the productions challenge our audiences to explore different ways of thinking.”
The JET season kicks off with a dinner-comedy gala 6-9 p.m. Monday, Sept. 18,
at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield. Ticket prices are $180 for dinner and entertainment starting at 6 p.m.; $65 for entertainment and dessert starting at 7:15 p.m.; and $35 for anyone under age 35 for dinner and entertainment. (248) 788-2900; jettheatre.org.