One microphone wasn't working. The makeup lady hadn't arrived, and that was the subject of much concern. The director was worried that a desk wouldn't be removed from the third scene, and that someone would forget to turn on the street lamp prop.
The 27 members of the cast were laughing, pacing, doing their own ironing and singing scales, silly with pre-curtain anxiety. Some had vocal training, some didn't. The youngest cast member was a high school senior waiting to hear back on her early-decision application to Princeton, the oldest a 64-year old math professor at a nearby college.
Yes, the scene at opening night of the Jewish Women's Repertory Company's performance of "Me and My Girl" at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center was one you might see behind the curtain moments before the first performance in any regional theater. What was less familiar was that the cast of this decidedly coed musical was made up entirely of women. But what was downright bizarre was that so was the audience.
The repertory, which has been putting on an annual by-women, for-women musical since 2005, is a theater company that caters to Orthodox Jews in Los Angeles. Any woman can try out, but Orthodox women won't have to worry about the trappings of regional theater that make it impossible for them to participate: immodest dress, plots that involve touching men they aren't married to, performing on the Sabbath and violating the prohibition against men listening to women sing.
That last prohibition is actually on the onus of men. They are not allowed to listen to women singing; women are not barred from performing in front of men. But as one actress said, "As the saying goes, we don't want to put a stumbling block in front of a blind man." That means that no matter how modestly the women dress, men can't come to the performance. But that hasn't been a problem: The cast and crew have found plenty of women happy to fill seats.
The enterprise was the brainchild of Margy Horowitz, 38, an Orthodox mother of two who gives private piano lessons and has always loved musical theater. She saw that her friends were wistful for the performance opportunities of their youths, which took place mostly in all-girls camps and schools.
"I heard that a friend of mine in Chicago had decided to do an all-women production for the religious community," Horowitz said. "I thought, this needs to be here. The women here who are religious graduate from high school and have no outlet for singing and dancing."
Horowitz's husband and friends thought there were too many impediments to making it work, but that only strengthened her resolve. Horowitz chose Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado, which was in the public domain. She funded the show herself for about $7,000. Ticket sales and donations grossed $15,000. After she reimbursed herself, Horowitz donated the rest to Aleinu, the family resource center of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. She continues to donate all net proceeds there.
The productions have gotten more streamlined and professional each year — but it takes a little bit of work on the part of the performers and some imagination on the part of the audience to make a romance like "Me and My Girl" work as an all-female show. In the show, by Douglas Furber and L. Arthur Rose, music by Noel Gay, Cockney Bill Snibson learns he is a long-lost heir to an earldom but must become a proper gentleman — with a proper wife — to claim his fortune.
As you'd expect, the taller women play male parts, but the music has to be adjusted because of the lack of tenors and basses. The show is also slightly edited with its audience in mind: In "Once Upon a Mattress," which the company performed in 2006, Lady Larkin becomes pregnant out of wedlock; to make the pregnancy less scandalous to the audience of very religious women and very young girls, Horowitz added that Larkin and her boyfriend were secretly married but that the marriage was illegal.
Horowitz's precautions are not without reason. "We had a few women walk out because Miss Adelaide was wearing a skirt with a high slit when we did 'Guys and Dolls'" in 2007. This year, there are very few changes — just the rewriting of a few "damns" into "darns" — and that's the way Horowitz likes it. "I wouldn't want to do 'Grease' because I'd have to change it so much that it wouldn't be recognizable."
But talent and professionalism aside, what is so moving about these productions is how much sacrifice goes into being able to meet the logistical demands of a show.
At rehearsal at Temple Beth Am's ballroom two weeks ago, the schedule-juggling by the show's overscheduled cast and crew was on display.