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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

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Rabbi takes musical to Off-Broadway

Tags: Arts
Mitch Magonet, left, Pinny Gniwisch and Joey Miller are premiering Rio, a musical with a social message, at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. [Jeff Larkin photo]

MONTREAL — Rabbi Pinny Gniwisch has seen the abject poverty and violence of Brazil’s cities first hand. As a Chabad rabbi, he has travelled to Rio de Janeiro where millions live in shantytowns that teem with homeless children, exploited and sometimes callously murdered.

The father of six always felt helpless.

Never did he imagine that he might one day be able to do something to bring the plight of these people to wider attention, nor that he would be cast in the role of theatrical producer – on Broadway, or, at least, very close to it.

Rabbi Gniwisch is the producer of Rio, a new musical play written by Montrealer Mitch Magonet in collaboration with Joey Miller of Toronto.

Magonet was an adult student of Rabbi Gniwisch’s at the Chai Centre and an aspiring young composer who played music by ear when he came to the rabbi eight years ago with a song from a musical he was working on.

“I was so moved and captured by the raw emotional power and energy, at that moment, I made a commitment to Mitch to do whatever possible to help get this musical off the ground and onto a stage,” Rabbi Gniwisch said.

That moment will finally come when Rio premieres July 10 at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, the first of six performances at St. Clements Theater on West 46th Street. It was one of 23 full productions chosen from among 400 entries. The annual festival is a showcase for promising new works, and has been the launching pad for many productions that went on to Broadway.

Inspired by Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Rio is the story of 12-year-old street kid Pipio, who desperately searches for his birth mother among the gangs and drug lords that rule Rio’s modern-day favelas.

These slums also have their colourful characters and exotic locales, and the play captures the carnival atmosphere amid the squalor. Ultimately, the message is hopeful.

“There is both joy and sorrow in the rhythms of the people of Brazil,” Magonet explained. “That’s what we wish to capture: the relentless beat that drives these people to survive.”

All this is to be accomplished with a cast of 12 Equity performers, headed by young Nicholas Gonzalez.

Rio is timely: many of these slums are being cleared and their inhabitants dispersed as Rio de Janeiro prepares to host the 2016 summer Olympics.

“As the father of six children, who are blessed daily with running water, an education and a family who loves them, I could not imagine them living without that,” Rabbi Gniwisch said. “And yet for thousands of homeless children in Rio, that is the only life they know.”

Besides its commercial potential, Gniwisch sees the play as an opportunity to bring about change, to fulfil the Jewish commandment of tikkun olam.

“Hopefully, Rio will shine a light on what is happening there,” he said, and shake Brazilians out of their indifference at a time when they are sensitive to international opinion as the Olympics approach.

Until now, the rabbi’s theatrical experience has been limited to Chabad’s walk-through productions for schoolchildren at holiday times including Maccabees and Exodus, the latter drawing 8,000 spectators.

His job has been to market Rio and find the money to mount it. Although most of the team is donating its time, he is still short $10,000 for basic costs.

Rio has attracted some heavy hitters in New York. The director is Scott Faris, who just did William Shatner’s one-man show Shatner’s World: We Just Live in it, while Broadway veteran Jack DePalma has been guiding Magonet and Miller as creative consultant. The choreographer is Kate Dunn, who was assistant choreographer for Billy Elliot.

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