Cynthia Citron

Cynthia Citron

Richard Israel Helms Falsettos for YADA’s New
Third Street Theatre

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Richard Hellstern, Wendy Rosoff, Chip Phillips, Kim Reed, Lani Shipman and Jesse Einstein in "Falsettos"

When Jerry Seinfeld said “Yada yada yada” you could interpret it to mean “and so on and so forth” or “blah blah blah” or even “stuff that’s too insignificant to talk about right now.”

When Lani Shipman says “YADA”, however, she is talking about something that’s very significant to her — the Youth Academy of Dramatic Arts, an organization she and her business partner Kimberly Harrington started 15 years ago and have been running ever since in the space that was a prominent rehearsal studio and supper club in the 1940s and the Dupree Dance Academy in the “˜80s and “˜90s.

YADA, known for training kids from 5 to 17 in singing, acting, and dance, has now added a new dimension to its training, as well as a new performing space.  It offers a 99-seat theater to its students, as well as to local and visiting theater companies.

“It was the next logical step for us,” Shipman says.  “We wanted to provide a professional atmosphere, with top production values for our students, as well as a new arts venue for this part of the city…This will bring in outside companies to the area. We are not a theater company ourselves, but we plan to produce a single show each year and then provide the space for two or three professional companies to mount their own productions. We see it as a win-win for everybody.”

The new Third Street Theatre will open on September 9 with its first production, William Finn’s and James Lapine’s Tony-winning musical Falsettos.  The director is Richard Israel, co-artistic director of the West Coast Ensemble and 2010 recipient of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle’s Milton Katselas Award for career achievement in directing.

Richard Israel

Israel is well known to Los Angeles audiences for directing some of the city’s most successful productions, recently including Gypsy for West Coast Ensemble, Having It All for David Elzer and Peter Schneider, Bell, Book and Candle at the Colony and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels for the Interact Theatre Company.  Anita Bryant Died for Your Sins, which he directed for the West Coast Ensemble, won a GLAAD nomination, and Assassins, also for the West Coast Ensemble, won four LA Weekly nominations, including those for direction and Musical of the Year.  As did 1776, which won five LA Weekly nominations for his Actor’s Co-Op staging in 2008.  For the Los Angeles premiere of Floyd Collins in 2005, Israel won a Backstage West Garland Award for Direction.

Israel’s career in theater began early—when he was 10— playing the role of Randolph MacAfee in the fifth grade production of Bye Bye Birdie at his grammar school on Long Island.  From there, he was hooked, he says, appearing in every available production right through to graduation from the University of Arizona at Tucson.  He graduated magna cum laude with a BFA in Musical Theatre and shortly afterwards came to Los Angeles to pursue his acting career.

His favorite role was as Charley in Merrily We Roll Along. “That character is very close to who I am,” he confesses.  “He’s someone who expects a lot of the world around him, who values integrity, and who puts doing the right thing over doing the easy thing,” he explains.  “At least, I hope I’m like that!”

Major Kurda, Richard Hellstern, Jesse Einstein, Lani Shipman and (in front) Chip Phillips

After several busy years in films, theater, and television, however, he discovered that he preferred the challenge of directing.  “I’ve been super lucky,” he says.  “I do a whole bunch of different things for a whole bunch of different people.  Mostly musicals, but they are all different stylistically.  If I only did one type of show, I’d lose my mind.”

He directed As You Like It for the Actor’s Co-Op three years ago, “but Shakespeare is not an area of expertise for me,” he says.  “I could find my way around a classic, but I’d have to take a hard look and make sure I knew what I was doing.  I just haven’t done them because nobody’s asked me to.  But there are so many companies in town that do Shakespeare and the classics really well, so I think I’ll just stick to what I do best.

“I feel so lucky to be doing Falsettos,” he continues.  “It’s a small musical with big themes.  It’s about what it means to be a family and how everyone copes when the family breaks up.”Â  Marvin, the husband and father, has left his wife Trina for his male lover, Whizzer, but he wants to include Whizzer as an addition to what he sees as his “tight-knit family.”Â  His wife Trina will have none of it, however, and goes off to see the family psychiatrist, Mendel, who is immediately attracted to her.  Mendel also counsels Marvin and Jason, the young son, who is afraid that he will turn out to be a “homo” like his father.

Richard Hellstern and Jesse Einstein

One of the key elements is the upcoming bar mitzvah of the young boy, Jason.  “It’s a rite of passage in which a boy explores what it means to be a man, and weighs it against the reality of being a man,” Israel explains.  “You’ve got to figure it out for yourself and you have to be okay with it.

“Nobody tells you how to be a family,” he continues.  “But the world is a random place and you need people around you to help you through it.”

Of the seven actors in Falsettos, five are new to him.  “After so many years in this town, you think you know the pool of actors.  Then other people come along, and it’s just joyful.”

Richard Hellstern, who plays Whizzer, is “brand new to me,” Israel says.  “He’s a real find.  I don’t know where he’s been hiding.  He’s so skilled technically.”  Shipman, who plays Trina, is a “smart, intuitive actor.  She brings heart and honesty to her part and is willing to rip open her skin a little.  She is the female presence trying to keep it all together, because that’s what women do,” Israel says.

Richard Hellstern and Jesse Einstein

“And I count my blessings every day for 12-year-old Major Curda, who plays Jason.  He is the real deal.  He says more with less than anybody I’ve ever worked with.  You see right through to his heart.  It’s effortless for him, which is scary.  And on top of everything else, he makes me laugh,” adds Israel.

In the middle of the Falsettos run (September 9 to October 16), Israel will also be directing a one- night staged singing of High Fidelity at the Alex Theatre in Glendale.  The production for the Musical Theatre Guild will feature some 17 performers on a stage with no sets or costumes.  “We have 29 hours of rehearsal and then we do a polished one-nighter on September 19,” Israel says.  “Our purpose isn’t to mount a full-scale production, but to re-acquaint the audience with a musical they maybe haven’t been aware of for a while.”

And with that, Richard Israel produces an ear-to-ear grin: the signature of a man truly happy in his work.

Falsettos, produced by Third Street Theatre, opens Sept. 9; plays Thurs.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 3pm; through Oct. 16. Tickets: $28. Third Street Theatre, 8115 W. Third St., Los Angeles; 323-655-9232 or www.showclix.com.

All Falsettos production photos by Yenka Honig

Richard Israel photo by Cynthia Citron