At 11 Joey Sable is a real pro. He’s acted in 13 shows over the past four years, he’s getting professional voice training in his spare time, he’s planning to go to Orange County High School for the Arts (OCHSA) and then New York University to study drama and he’s going to be a stage actor – or maybe film and TV – and win awards.
Joey, a sixth grader at Tarbut V’Torah, is one of about 50 kids, divided into two age groups (6 to 9 and 10 to 17), who participate in the Merage JCC’s JStage musical theater program. “I’ve had principal roles with many lines, and I sing in every show,” he enthused. “One of my favorites was “Bye Bye Birdie”, where I was one of the youngest kids but had one of the lead roles.”
Joey’s mother, Aliza, who encouraged him, loves the program. “I get a lot of nachas out of seeing Joey perform,” she said. “It’s given him a peer group, and all the kids get the opportunity to glow, shine, feel good and be confident.”
Sable also likes the convenience of the program. She’s on the staff at the JCC, Joey can walk over from school and the program tailors its schedule to observant Jews. Joey’s twin, Sophie, is part of the program too.
For 10-year-old Ben Susskind, “JStage is the most important part of his childhood to date,” according to his mother, Robin Gurien. The director, Elizabeth Kent, lets the kids bring their own ideas and innovations into the performance, and the JCC is a safe environment. When I drop him off, everybody at the JCC knows who and where he is.”
Ben, who has been in 12 shows in four years, added, “This theater group is amazing. The director gives us all a chance to express ourselves and become better at acting. Singing is my favorite part, and I got to be stage manager, which was really fun. I’d like to be an actor for my career.”
Laurel Feldner, 11, has participated in JStage for the past 4 years. She said, “JStage feels like a second home to me. I have made so many new friends through the theater. I have learned that you have to work hard to get better things. I have more confidence in myself after performing in front of an audience.”
Kent, who is the director of JStage, also directs JStars, the JCC’S adult theater program. “Fantasy Fusion Follies” is her 12th directorial credit with JStage and “Hooray for Hollywood” is her 2nd directorial credit with JStars.
“My favorite aspect of JStage is watching the individual cast members blossom not only as talents, but also as young people,” Kent said. “As I see it, my job is to provide a strong production frame for their abilities and then give them as much, or as little, directorial support as they require to deliver on their full potential. JStars is a joy because the cast is having fun as we develop a high quality production together.”
Yael Brudner, the JCC’s cultural arts director, said that the JStage participants get the full musical theater experience of singing, dancing, acting and stage management. “It’s a real teaching program with all the jargon and all the elements of what it takes to put on a production,” she said. “It’s very positive in terms of building self esteem and creating a sense of teamwork. The kids who are involved are really committed. They create relationships for life.”
Brudner added that the shows have professional sound and lights and professional sets. Tickets always sell, and the theater plays to packed houses, because “the tickets are inexpensive, but the shows deliver a professional experience and measure up to what’s out there in the community.”
The youth program has three shows per year, and rehearsals are twice a week. The cost is $260, plus a $40 material fee for costumes and a requirement to sell 14 tickets.
The adult program, which costs $150, is presenting “Hooray for Hollywood” on January 12 at 7 p.m. and January 13 at 4 p.m. The show features Broadway musicals that have made the transition to hit Hollywood films. Tickets are $18 and can be obtained at www.jccoc.org.
Musical theater has become a family affair, according to Brudner. Parents appreciate it because of the shortage of arts programs in many public schools. They know all the words to the songs their kids perform and sometimes they perform in the adult theater group as well.
“If you do it, you come back,” Brudner said. “We’re really growing.”