You’ve probably heard “Tomorrow” or “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” from the musical “Annie” countless times. But have you heard them in Hebrew?
For the 25th anniversary of the school’s annual eighth-grade musical, Krieger Schechter Day School students performed the musical fully in Hebrew, making them one of three Jewish day schools in the country to accomplish this feat (alongside schools in Boston and Atlanta) on March 13 and 14.
The tradition of staging a musical in Hebrew began as a way for KSDS students to showcase their language abilities, which they’ve been practicing since kindergarten. It also gives them the chance to demonstrate public speaking (along with dancing and singing) to the audience at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts at the Owings Mills JCC.
Shuli Raffel, KSDS’ middle school Hebrew teacher for the last 32 years, has been involved with the musicals since day one.
“By eighth grade, most of the kids speak modern Hebrew,” said Raffel, who is retiring at the end of this school year. “Since the director doesn’t know Hebrew, it means she has to know the play in English by heart because line-to-line it’s translated. We did ‘Annie’ in 2002, so we had the original script, but we had to adapt it to this class.”
This year’s eighth-grade class of 21 students is smaller than past years, but one wouldn’t have known that from the amount of energy that the kids brought to the stage. Even though most of the audience might not have been fluent in Hebrew, the cast did a commendable job of using gesture and speech to get the overall gist across (it also helped that the program book had key Hebrew vocabulary words for each scene).
Leading the charge on “Annie” was director Natalie Smith Pilcher. Though she is not Jewish or a Hebrew speaker herself, Pilcher came on board due to the “challenge” inherent in this kind of production.
“As an actor and director, I love language,” Pilcher said. “I think it’s so incredibly important to preserve language, and that’s part of what drew me in, the idea that these are not all native speakers. There are a handful who speak it well or are from Israel. Most of these kids are just learning themselves. So to have them do a full-length production is amazing.”
So how did she get the humor and emotion across onstage without missing a beat?
“There’s a communication level beyond just the words in the script,” the director said. “This is a brilliant illustration of how you need to incorporate everything your character is feeling. Not just in your voice, but through your whole body, your face, through every gesture. For me, a play is almost like poetry; it’s condensed.”
Judging by the audience’s reactions to the performance on March 14, the “Annie” team’s efforts paid off.
“We’ve gone every year since our kids started [at KSDS],” said Sam Andorsky, father of three, during intermission. “I don’t know of any other school in the area that does it, and there’s something about being able to master it and to act and sing in it. It’s taking it to another level. And while it’s true we don’t expect these kids to go on and sing and perform in Hebrew ever again, something about achieving it and wiring their brains this way I think will serve them well in the future for visits to Israel or any other situation where they might need it.”
Sara Spinner-Block, a parent of a KSDS alumnus, came to see the show and help celebrate the school’s 36th anniversary.
“I think the kids are coached so well, their expressivity and their artistry and their dramatic skills, if you’re all at familiar with the show in the least, it all comes shining through,” she said.
Robyn Blum, head of the middle school at KSDS, said that the eighth-grade musicals have “taken on a life of their own.” “Annie” marked the 10th play she’s been involved with during her time at the school.
“It’s the defining characteristic of each graduating class,” Blum said. “I think that sense of pride in what they, as a grade, accomplished together means that it’s a touchstone for alumni and alumni parents even years later. They come back because they realize how important it was to them and how amazing they thought it was that older alumni came and watched them. They give back to their school. I think it’s very special that alumni of Krieger Schechter have such ties to their elementary and middle school.”
Andorsky said that even though he isn’t a fluent Hebrew speaker, “seeing how sure of it they are that they understand makes me feel like I’m understanding it.”
“I’m partially here to be in awe and envious of these kids that they’ve still got it,” he said. “It’s certainly easier to follow than the opera, and more entertaining, too.”