It's Tchaikovsky for the 21st century

Israel dives into US theater scene with newest export, ‘Swan Lake Rock Opera’

Setting itself apart with its universal appeal, the show still boasts a laundry list of Israeli icons among its writers, creators, and actors; now playing in an extended run in NYC

  • Cast of 'Swan Lake Rock Opera.' (Lauren Khalfayan)
    Cast of 'Swan Lake Rock Opera.' (Lauren Khalfayan)
  • Cast of 'Swan Lake Rock Opera.' (Lauren Khalfayan)
    Cast of 'Swan Lake Rock Opera.' (Lauren Khalfayan)
  • Cast of 'Swan Lake Rock Opera.' (Lauren Khalfayan)
    Cast of 'Swan Lake Rock Opera.' (Lauren Khalfayan)
  • Sharona Pick, left, with mother Mirit Shem-Ur, right and director Tsedi Sarfati, center, of 'Swan Lake Rock Opera.' (Lauren Khalfayan)
    Sharona Pick, left, with mother Mirit Shem-Ur, right and director Tsedi Sarfati, center, of 'Swan Lake Rock Opera.' (Lauren Khalfayan)

A made-in-Israel musical called “Swan Lake Rock Opera,” now playing in New York City, is the latest entry in a decade-long list of Israeli-created entertainment and performers flocking to America.

The welcome invasion began with the 2008 series “BeTipul,” which morphed into “In Treatment” in the US, and continued with “Homeland,” “Fauda,” “When Heroes Fly,” “Shtisel,” and more recently, “Our Boys” and “The Spy.” The Israeli movie “The Band’s Visit” became a Tony-award-winning Broadway show – and Israeli actors such as Gal “Wonder Woman” Gadot and Shiri “Chicago” Maimon have become familiar faces to American audiences.

“Swan Lake Rock Opera,” however, is no “Shtisel.” Whereas that surprise hit and many of the other Israeli-originated shows focus on Jewish and Israeli lives, “SLRO” has not a hint of Hebrew. But its creators are Israeli icons, and two-thirds of the cast of a dozen talented young actors hail from the Holy Land.

The show uses Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet “Swan Lake” as its foundation, including the love story of Prince Siegfried, the royal playboy, and Odette, the swan princess. It features much of the Russian composer’s instantly recognizable music.

Then, “Swan Lake Rock Opera” takes wing in a different direction, soaring into a sexy pop rock musical with new songs that tell a tale of romance and tragedy.

The project began as the brainchild of renowned lyricist Mirit Shem-Ur and her daughter Sharona Pick, whom she had with ex-husband Svika Pick. They were soon joined by director Tsedi Sarfati, described by Israeli screenwriter and journalist Gal Uchovsky as “the father of modern Israeli show business, a man who manages to stay fresh, young at heart, and always relevant.”

Pick says the material was a natural fit for her, as her dad, Svika Pick, one of Israel’s best-known pop/rock artists of the last half-century, “used to play this particular piece for us when I was a child.”

Sharona Pick, left, with mother Mirit Shem-Ur, right and director Tsedi Sarfati, center, of ‘Swan Lake Rock Opera.’ (Steve North)

“He came from a classical background, and was very much in love with it, so he wanted us to know it,” Pick says. “I fell in love with this masterpiece too, and doing this show lets me combine my love for pop rock and classical music.”

Pick and her sister Daniella (now married to film director Quentin Tarantino) performed as a duo in the early 2000s, and after they had a hit single, says Pick, she became “more confident in my composing skills, and started taking it more seriously.”

A mother of three young children, Pick turned from singing and focused on what she calls her lifelong dream: to do a musical.

After her mother Mirit wrote the book and lyrics, “she and Tsedi sat for hours doing the play, and I worked with him doing the songs. It’s a joint effort,” says Pick.

Director Sarfati was no stranger to the Pick family; in the early 1970s, he appeared in the Israeli version of “Hair” with Svika.

Tsedi Sarfati, director of ‘Swan Lake Rock Opera.’ (Lauren Khalfayan)

“After 18 years as an actor, since the age of 10, that was my last performance on stage. [Singer] Chava Alberstein asked me then to direct a show of hers, and all of a sudden my life changed and I became a director,” Sarfati tells The Times of Israel.

It was a fortuitous switch. Israeli-American stage and screen star Mike Burstyn (still remembered in the Jewish state for his 1966 “Kuni Lemel” character) has been a friend and colleague of Sarfati’s for nearly 50 years. According to Burstyn, “There is no one working in our industry today who can compare to his talent and ability as a visionary director.”

Known for huge theatrical and television productions, Sarfati laughs as he concedes that “Swan Lake Rock Opera” is “the smallest show I’ve ever done.”

“But when I was 13 years old in school,” he says, “I heard the music of Tchaikovsky, I wanted to do the choreography for Swan Lake, and I even played the prince. So when Sharona and Mirit told me about it, I said, let’s sit together, listen to the songs, and see if there’s a good chemistry. After two weeks, I said I’m in.”

Cast of ‘Swan Lake Rock Opera.’ (Lauren Khalfayan)

The director sees “SLRO” as a reimagining of the classic 19th century work for the 21st century.

“Swan Lake has always been a ballet, but nobody’s written it as a play, with text, with a story. We worked for more than four months to build a story between the songs,” says Sarfati.

A key character in that narrative is the villainous Count Von Rothbart, portrayed by Israeli-American actor, writer and producer Edan Jacob Levy. It’s an enjoyable challenge for the Jerusalem-born Levy, who arrived in New York City nearly a decade ago at age 25 to study acting.

“Von Rothbart is a nasty S.O.B.,” Levy says. “A megalomaniac who thinks he’s king of the world, and wants to control everyone and everything he can. Playing the role of a chauvinist pig was difficult, because I don’t resonate with any of that on a personal level. In fact, I speak out against it. But from an acting standpoint, playing that kind of character is fun.”

Levy — who, like many actors, has a side job: teaching Hebrew in Brooklyn — appreciates the scope of “SLRO.”

Cast of ‘Swan Lake Rock Opera.’ (Lauren Khalfayan)

“It’s a fun, light comedy, a farce, but it also deals with serious issues such as sexism,” Levy says. “And working with [78-year-old] Tsedi is extremely interesting. He’s older now, but there’s never-ending energy, and I get inspired and excited by his enthusiasm. It’s contagious.”

Pick, Sarfati and Levy are all hopeful about the future of their beloved creation, which is now being performed in the Chelsea Music Hall entertainment space beneath Manhattan’s Chelsea Market, and which will move to another New York City venue in November.

Levy envisions the glitzy Venetian Masquerade Party scene on a larger stage, and Sarfati is eager to have the show grow, feather by feather.

“I don’t want to see four or five swanees,” says the director, referring to the bevy of beautiful birds who flit through the play. “I want to see 12 swanees. This is a fairy tale, it’s a fantasy. And fantasies are big.”

Cast of ‘Swan Lake Rock Opera.’ (Lauren Khalfayan)

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