In today's tough times, the only pastime I — and many of my friends — can afford is our favorite: complaining about Orlando's arts scene. We bemoan a lack of opportunities, a paucity of venues and a shortage of attentive audiences. We bitch about budgets, and whine that no one wants to take a chance on something new. Sometimes, we need someone to stop and shake us out of our kvetching. Sometimes we need someone like Elinor Brownstein. She's a composer and lyricist who has written an original musical, recruited a professional director and cast and produced it entirely on her own dime. And she's doing it all, for the first time in her life, at the age of 75.
Brownstein's debut creation, Oy Vay the Musical, premieres this weekend at the Maitland Civic Center, and it's billed as a "humorous montage of songs illustrating various aspects of Jewish life." I have to admit that when I first heard about Oy Vay, it set off my schmaltz alarm: Does the world need a kosher answer to Menopause the Musical? But after hearing Elinor tell her story, I can't help but have high hopes for her. She lived a remarkably full life in Schenectady, N.Y. — running a children's book publishing company, earning a master's degree in social work and "putting it to use raising five children" — before moving to Winter Springs in 1992. In all that time, she's never before participated in local theater, but she's harbored a lifelong love of Broadway since seeing Guys and Dolls at the age of 13. Through the years, she expressed her love of music by playing piano and "writing little ditties" for social organization events.
Of course, a heartwarming history doesn't have anything to do with compositional quality. But Elinor also possesses a savvy musical intelligence that coincidentally connected her with her collaborators. After expressing an observation on the relationship between structural engineering and the works of Bach and Beethoven, a fellow student in an architecture class at Seminole Community College approached her to discuss music. She gave him a CD of Miracles, an unproduced song cycle she wrote about her family. He in turn introduced her to Sandra Lacey, a music educator and performer whose stage and screen credits include HBO's Recount and a production of The Sound of Music starring Christopher "Doc Brown" Lloyd.
Lacey was impressed enough with Brownstein, and the songs she had written for her second show, to sign on as director, much to Elinor's initial surprise. ("I said ‘Really?' and she said ‘Yeah!'?") The cast of seasoned performers Lacey assembled includes Laurie Barker Copeland, Judy Kaie, Lisa Leonard and Scott Hodges (who worked with me on the SoulFire Theatre and Dinner Experience's Killer Joe back in 2001). They're not exactly the most Jewish bunch, but Elinor sounds like she has enough bubbie-ness bubbling over to faryidishn a gaggle of goys into rabbinical students.
Oy Vay was originally conceived as a scriptless musical revue (Elinor is a "devotee" of 1968's bookless off-Broadway hit Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris) but the cast suggested a more cohesive through line was needed. Together with the director, the cooperative created dialogue scenes to link Elinor's songs. They sound proud of their efforts; while Elinor only ever anticipated a handful of performances, the cast and crew are looking for places to extend the show's life beyond the one-weekend run.
You might think the specter of a second Great Depression would inspire extreme fiscal conservatism in someone born during the first one. But Elinor's spirited pursuit of her dreams regardless of recession is inspirational. "I'm 75, I'm a grandma, I don't know what could happen tomorrow."
I can't yet say if Oy Vay will set the theater world on fire, but I'm happy to help Elinor spread her message that you can be creative at any firstname.lastname@example.org