Janice Chaikelson Steinberg, theater director/choreographer of the Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy’s (BCHA) production of “The Lion King,” was thrilled with this year’s productions, held on Thursday, December 12 and twice on Sunday, December 15. “The shows went incredibly well and the response from the audience was phenomenal. People were truly blown away and couldn’t believe it was a middle school production.”
She heard comments like, “This is road-worthy” or “I liked it better than the Broadway version.”
Working with students in fourth through eighth grades, this is Steinberg’s 10th year directing the middle school annual production. With auditions beginning in September, student interest and enthusiasm is built up during the many months of rehearsal. Steinberg explained that “everyone gets in,” with enough positions available for all who want to participate in this eagerly awaited event. “We want to inspire everyone to unleash their creativity. Everyone who wants to be inspired can do so by joining our production.”
Because of the elaborate costumes and scenery of “The Lion King,” this year’s production was a particularly challenging one. Lighting is consequential, so Steinberg ordered a “cyc” or “cyclorama” to hang as a backdrop. For maximum effect, a cyclorama is usually positioned at the back of the apse on a regular stage and had to be adapted to the small performance area available at BCHA. Steinberg hired a technical director, a lighting designer and extra lighting and rented high-level costumes. The constraints did not mar the magnificence of the performance nor the exuberance of the cast.
Steinberg began acting on stage and screen at the age of 6 and began directing productions while in high school in Montreal. Upon graduating from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, she worked for eight years as director of marketing for The New Victory Theater—New York’s Theater for Kids and Families. Locally, she has directed youth productions in various schools in Greenwich and Stamford, as well as programs at the Stamford JCC.
Steinberg became involved with BCHA productions when her children attended the school. Brought in by Jonathan Cahr, director of the school’s musical performances, she was asked to write a script that would coordinate with “Day School Musical,” which was in the works. With just three weeks to the performance, she wrote a script that worked well with the musical numbers the cast was rehearsing. Steinberg soon assumed the role of director/choreographer of BCHA productions and continues to work with Cahr on the school’s annual musical as well as their collaboration on shows and classes outside of BCHA.
For Steinberg, the most meaningful part of working with BCHA students is “seeing the students walk away with a renewed sense of self. Each child grows throughout the process—whether that growth is in performance ability, social skills, organizational skills, responsibility, or even just a better appreciation of the arts. It’s especially meaningful when teachers say to me, ‘How did you get that student to do what they did on stage? That child used to sit in the back of my class and not open his/her mouth!’”
Steinberg said, “It takes clever planning for sets and large props, as well as scene changes and entrances.” In addition, the lack of storage space means that set pieces, props and costumes can’t be stored from year to year.
All of the school’s productions are musicals since there’s a larger audience for this genre. It’s also hard to find non-musicals appropriate for middle-school children. This year's production featured Musical Director Zachary Kampler on the keyboards, a BCHA parent on the drums and a hired bass player. Shows that are chosen must conform to observant day school standards, so “love stories,” the plots for most musical theater, are out!
Steinberg is particularly grateful to the wonderful parents of BCHA who assisted with so many aspects of the production, including endless driving for rehearsals, sewing costumes, ticket sales, donations, program book ads and fundraisers. They are an integral part of the effort.
It’s interesting to note that several students who have performed in BCHA’s annual musical productions have gone on to star in their high school production, including Steinberg’s own two daughters. Some are even pursuing a career in performance.
By Yvette Finkelstein