Wildly funny, with great music and choreography, the Cameri Theatre’s The Chabadnikim is a fantastic production that casts a critical yet loving gaze on serious social issues. Written by Udi Gottshalk, and directed by Gilad Kimchi and Gottshalk, with music composed by Elad Peretz (lyrics by Gottshalk) and performed live onstage by the Revolution Orchestra, conducted by Roy Oppenheim. Musical theatre offers a pleasant way to present social critique, opening minds and hearts as clever lyrics and subversive ideas are presented in song and dance. Taking a very light and playful tone, The Chabadnikim is wonderfully entertaining, with outstanding performances from the entire cast.
The narrative centers on two brothers who live in Kfar Chabad: Yehuda (Ofri Biterman) the scholar, and his twin brother Chaim (Rafael Abbas), who is less than learned, but has a good heart. Having reached the advanced age of 23, it is time that these two young men find brides. The difficulty is that so far, Yehuda has rejected every young maiden that has been presented to him, while Chaim has not been able to find a single young woman who will agree to a second date. The matchmaker Hanna Haya (Tali Oren) finds Yehuda a match he cannot refuse, pairing him up with Rina, the rabbi’s daughter, but what is to be done about Chaim? The rabbi decrees that since none of the eligible young women in Kfar Chabad will have him, Chaim must leave his home to seek a bride. He is bound for Tel Aviv, where Hanna Haya’s cousin, Haya Hanna (also Tali Oren) will find him a match. The narrative’s trajectory resembles a classic folk tale, as the young man leaves the familiar safety of his home to venture out in the wide world where he will find adventure, troubles, and true love.
Rafael Abbas is adorable as Chaim, the twin who was deprived of oxygen at birth and is a little slower, a little clumsier, a little more naïve. Abbas lets the goodness of Chaim’s heart shine through, inviting empathy for the character’s fears and wishes. Yehuda, the slightly older twin (by one minute and forty seconds – one of the many fun songs in this musical), despite his scholarly brilliance, contends with problems of his own. He’s been introduced to many young women, but never felt the magic, never felt the butterflies in his stomach. He wishes he could, and Ofri Biterman conveys the hidden yearnings and inner turmoil beneath the surface. The relationship between the two brothers is the heartbeat of this production, conveyed by Abbas and Biterman with warmth and poignant authenticity. Chaim relies on Yehuda for everything, the two are never parted, and Yehuda is always there to care for his brother, even though sometimes the responsibility rests heavily on his shoulders. When the rabbi decides that Chaim must leave Kfar Chabad, while Yehuda prepares for his wedding, the brothers are faced with their first separation.
The Chabadnikim presents two very different worlds – that of Kfar Chabad, and that of Tel Aviv, with Tel Aviv presented in its extremes. Dirty and dangerous, Chaim and Yehuda don’t know what to make of this place where people go hungry living on the streets, and crime lords rule the neighborhood. Yet it also offers new experiences and great freedom. The musical chooses to take a light-hearted approach, engaging problematic issues with a gentle touch, worrying less about plausibility, and always choosing humor, laughter, and love. So, when Menahem (Yaniv Swissa) the local boss, goes around shooting people, it’s funny rather than horrifying. All this is possible thanks to the terrific performances and impeccable comic timing of the entire cast. The role of the matchmakers – Hanna Haya and Haya Hanna – alternates between Tali Oren and Shani Shauli. On the night I saw the performance Tali Oren was wonderful as the vivacious, flamboyant matchmaker. Moses – yes, Moshe Rabenu – makes an appearance here too, making a strong impression with his brief cameo, Orel Tsabari has great moves! One of my favorites was Elad Atrakchi who is hilarious and charming as Ron, the snarky and elegant wedding dress designer.
Although the musical is critical of certain aspects of life in the Chabad community, one aspect that is glided past and not really addressed is the status of women, and in general, the focus here is more on the men. Other than the matchmakers, the women, for the most part, have secondary roles and are viewed as rather traditional, even stereotypical, one-dimensional characters, focusing solely on cooking or marriage. Which is understandable, considering that it is impossible to encompass all issues, and after all, Yehuda and Chaim are the heroes of this story. The exception is Mary, who is one of the foreign workers employed by Menashe in conditions of servitude. Portrayed by blank, she imbues the character with verve and touching integrity.
The libretto is clever and fun, making good use of Biblical and other religious texts to evoke the culture of Chabad. When Chaim and Yehuda arrive in Tel Aviv, the cultural differences lead not only to shock on the part of the brothers, but various amusing misinterpretations and misunderstandings. Fluent spoken Hebrew will certainly enhance one’s enjoyment of the musical, yet even though viewers with only a basic knowledge of Hebrew might miss a double entendre or two, the performances and songs are so expressive, and the musical numbers so superb, with lively choreography and delightful costumes – the overall experience is one of pure pleasure.