Love Sick at Theater J

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Never rouse love. But once love has been awakened, never put it back to sleep! The chilling and inspiring message behind a new musical now on stage with Theater J, not only kicking off their 2019/2020 season, but welcoming the company home to their space in residence at the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center on The Trish Vradenburg Stage inside the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater. Love Sick, an evocative and timeless musical, written and adapted by Ofra Daniel with Music by Ofra Daniel and Lior Ben-Hur, tells the soul-searing and moving story of love in a profound and relatable fashion to people of all walks of life. With a riveting, original score, Love Sick sets the ageless quest of awakened passion against an almost mystical imagination of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Directed by Christopher Renshaw, with Musical Direction by Ali Paris, and Choreography by Matt Cole, this clever and beautiful musical story will enchant the hearts of audiences everywhere, giving them something tangible and relatable to take home with them when it comes to the experience of love.

Ofra Daniel (center) as Tirzah and The Women of Jerusalem in Love Sick. Photo: Teresa Castracane
Teresa Castracane Ofra Daniel (center) as Tirzah and The Women of Jerusalem in Love Sick. Photo: Teresa Castracane

Gnarled, wending limbs erupt from centerstage, stretching their monotone fingers skyward; it is a bleached tree of life, leafless, listless. But don’t let this mirage fool you, it is but a focal point in the whirling, beautiful chaos that is Misha Kachman’s scenic design. The stage is shrouded in a light mist, which permeates the visuals at the back of the stage. Laundry is strung up on lines that crisscross one another behind the great tree. Kachman symbolically includes the notion that everyone’s dirty laundry can be seen, even if only just so, when it is hung in public; this aligns brilliantly with the protagonist’s behavior as the show progresses. There is an urban feel to the set as well; brightly sprayed tag-graffiti covers the side walls, creating a dichotomy between ancient, timeless Jerusalem, and the modern inner workings of Tel Aviv.

The earth-tone rags featured on the Women of Jerusalem are but one trick up Costume Designer Kelsey Hunt’s sleeve. Draped in a cloak of rags, the layers mirroring the timelessness of this prophetic, narrative figure, the initial costume that Hunt sets upon Tirzah— who appears not as Tirzah but rather some mythical, Jewish, Cassandra— is telling and physically hampers her movement. Multiple layers of rags, white wedded bliss, and sensual garments are what Hunt has meticulously placed upon the actor playing Tirzah so that she never truly leaves the stage, even when shedding her skin throughout the phases of her life’s story.

(Top: L to R) Kanysha Williams, Kara-Tameika Watkins, Sarah Laughland, with Sasha Olinick (bottom left) and Sarah Corey (bottom right) in Love Sick. Photo: Teresa Castracane
Teresa Castracane (Top: L to R) Kanysha Williams, Kara-Tameika Watkins, Sarah Laughland, with Sasha Olinick (bottom left) and Sarah Corey (bottom right) in Love Sick. Photo: Teresa Castracane

In the growing, popular fashion of musicals like The Band’s Visit, and Once, the musicians are a live part of the stage performance, outfitted with Hunt’s costumes, and moving about like members of the village. The Musicians (Manny Arciniega and Kendell Haywood on percussion, Jason Labrador and John Tyler Garner on violin, Ali Paris on quanun, Cristian Perez and Duff Davis on guitar, Benjamin Rikhoff on bass, and Mila Weiss on woodwinds) are the very soul of the performance. The striking, Middle-Eastern-inspired score is brought to vibrant life by these talented performers. There are songs all throughout the performance that have the audience all but dancing in their seats, with the musicians racing these spirited tunes along. Mila Weiss on clarinet deserves particular praise for the featured solo during “Daughters of Zion” which really elevates the intensity of the song’s mood.

Musical Director Ali Paris, who wears many hats as the show’s MD, an on-stage musician, and performers the role of The Lover (in addition to wearing a rather dapper white fedora!), brings sensational blends to the ensemble. The Women of Jerusalem (Sarah Corey, Sarah Laughland, Kara-Tameika Watkins, Kanysha Williams) carry a great many of the backing sounds, which build and swell all throughout the performance. This quartet of women give their enthusiastic and spirited voices to rousing numbers like “The Cook Song”, which although is somewhat contrary in its lyrics, is a spirited good time for all (except maybe poor Tirzah.) Paris’ musical direction displays a seasoned approach to the complexities of Ofra Daniel and Lior Ben-Hur’s score.

Ali Paris as The Lover in Theater J's Love Sick. Photo: Teresa Castracane
Teresa Castraca Ali Paris as The Lover in Theater J’s Love Sick. Photo: Teresa Castracane

As The Lover, Ali Paris lends his dulcet, sensual voice to the role with ease. Exquisitely mic’d, by Sound Designer Brendan Aanes, Paris’ voice wafts in and out of numbers like an ethereal, ghostly touch. The overt sensuality of his voice evokes deep, pathos of passion from the pit of the soul. Paris’ voice smolders gently, simmering under a scorching lust that underscores each of his solos. “Dance For Me” and his segment of the trio, “The One” are aural bliss that tantalize the senses. Paris is often aloft, centered in the platform of the grand tree, playing the Qanun, which only serves to enhance the mesmeric qualities of both his presence on stage and his overall performance.

Every deeply moving musical has its moments of levity, often in a silly song of some sort or another. (Even Les Mis gets “Master of the House.”) Love Sick gets “The Fish Song”, which is the first true introduction to Sasha Olinick as The Husband. (He briefly appears as Father in “Eye to Eye”, a roaring song that quickly advances Tirzah’s story forward into her arranged marriage to the Fishmonger.) Despite the awkwardly hilarious nature of “The Fish Song”, it is set forth, even in that number, the deep disconnect between Olinick’s Husband character and the wildly, sensually voracious Tirzah. Olinick’s deep, moving voice is perfect for the role; he is possessed of a rich spirit, despite the character’s emotional shortcomings. Much like the stereotype of any emotionally stunted man, he is quiet, reserved, and content to be so. This make the show’s ultimate conclusion that much more of a gut-punch and blow to both the heart and soul.

Ofra Daniel (center) as Tirzah and Ali Paris (above) as The Lover in Love Sick. Photo: Teresa Castracane
Teresa Castracane Ofra Daniel (center) as Tirzah and Ali Paris (above) as The Lover in Love Sick. Photo: Teresa Castracane

At the core of every story that spins circles around love is a powerful woman, lost to the wiles and whims of its spell. At the core of Love Sick is creator and co-composer Ofra Daniel in the role of Tirzah. Her extraordinary performance, much like the show itself, possesses a timelessness that defies description. Little more than a prophetic pile of rags at the show’s start, Daniel transcends time, starting the narrative as this eccentric, elderly street beggar; those of Tel Aviv call her “The Poet of Love.” But as she pedals the story of Tirzah backward in time, reliving each moment as she narrates it, Daniel’s physicality, voice, and overall comportment grow youthful once more. Versatile, dynamic, and stunning in the role, Daniel takes the audience on an unforgettable narrative journey through the tangles of love.

Ofra Daniel as Tirzah in Theater J's Love Sick. Photo: Teresa Castracane.
Teresa Castracane Ofra Daniel as Tirzah in Theater J’s Love Sick. Photo: Teresa Castracane.

In addition to being a brilliant, creatively talented librettist, lyricist, composer, and singer, Ofra Daniel delights the audience with a complete understanding of her physical sensuality. The musical is soaked in sensuality, bathed in beauty, and drenched to its essence in passion. Daniel translates these concepts with her physicality and her evocative dancing. “I Am I” is the perfect culmination of Daniel’s exuberance, sensationally and phenomenally entwining passion and seduction and acceptance of her own spirited sexual being into every sound and move that permeates this number. Daniel exemplifies the feminine will with glorious acceptance in this number; there spice and heat and a rhythmic rapture that erupts from her performance of this number, arguably making it one of the most impressive moments in the production.

Tragedy is known for its unstoppable chorus; and although this musical has a rather unpredictable ending, with what seems like an unstoppable timelessness to it, it is anything but tragic in its existence. Rapturous, delightful, and utterly moving, Love Sick is the perfect season opener and musical with which to welcome Theater J back home.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission

Love Sick plays through September 29, 2019 on The Trish Vradenburg Stage in the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater in the Morris Cafritz Center for the Arts in the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center— 1529 16th Street NW in Washington, DC. Tickets are available for purchase by calling the box office at 202-777-3210 or by purchasing them online.

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