Young stars of ‘The Gift’ learn more than singing and dancing


A musical production happening at UCSD now represents the culmination of a year-long learning experience for the kids who will take the stage.

Academy on Stage, the children’s musical theater company of the San Diego Jewish Academy, will perform its spring musical production, “The Gift,” at UCSD’s Mandeville Auditorium from Thursday, March 30, to Sunday, April 2. The performance is an original rock/jazz musical written by composer, director and playwright Cara Freedman, who heads the Academy on Stage program. The all-student cast of the play worked all year toward this final spring musical.

Freedman has written 12 musicals based on Jewish themes and values, eight of which have been staged, including “Esther: The Rock Musical,” based on the Book of Esther.

The Academy on Stage performance of “The Gift” will be the world premiere for the musical. The play is set in the roaring 1920s and tells the story of a newly married young Jewish couple who are exploring their traditional values while encountering new temptations. The colorful cast of characters includes flappers, gangsters and all the characters one might expect at a big Jewish wedding.

More than 65 student actors prepared for the show by enrolling in a for-credit class taught by Freedman at the Academy, studying six hours per week in areas of performance skills including vocal training, dance and choreography, and backstage techniques. Any student who takes the class gets a role in the play.

“It’s not like there are auditions,” said Sylvia Schenk, a parent volunteer on the production. “Every kid who wants to be in the show gets casted.”

In addition to their regular course work, for the last month leading up to the show the actors have also rehearsed every Sunday.

“They’ve been working on it all year, and there’s also a commitment for the kids outside of the show,” Schenk said. “These kids have worked very hard.”

“The Gift” is based on a lesson from Pirke Avot, the Ethics of Our Fathers, a collection of centuries-old rabbinic sayings that has become the principle ethical guide for all Jews. In it, Ben Zoma said, “Who is rich? Those who are happy with their portion in life.”

Schenk said the protagonists of the play embark on their married lives and come to understand the sentiment behind the lesson through their own trials and tribulations.

“They get married and it’s a nice traditional wedding, and everyone is happy, but it doesn’t last long,” she said. “Soon, he’s not happy at all. He always wants more, is never content with his lot in life.”

While the students of Academy on Stage learn a great deal about the technical and artistic skills that go into staging a musical production, the lesson they