Where the wild operettas are

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It’s the perfect theatrical storm: playwright/librettist Tony Kushner, children’s book author/set designer Maurice Sendak and Berkeley Repertory Theater’s artistic director Tony Taccone joining forces on a new staging of the children’s operetta “Brundibar.”

“Brundibar,” along with another short opera, “Comedy on the Bridge,” opens at Berkeley Rep on Friday, Nov. 11.

The operetta drew such high-caliber talent because of its pedigree. Jewish composer Hans Krasa (with additional music by Bohuslav Martinu) created it while a prisoner in Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. “Brundibar” may seem like child’s play, but its message of good triumphing over evil resonates beyond its simple story.

Krasa staged 55 performances while in Theresienstadt, sometimes called the “model” concentration camp as it was often used as a showplace when international agencies would check in on the Nazis’ handiwork. In fact, prisoners performed the show for representatives of the International Red Cross in 1943.

It did them little good. Most of the cast, crew and creative team, including Krasa, perished in the flames of the Holocaust.

But the story of “Brundibar” still resonates.

Penniless sister and brother Aninka and Pepicek go off in search of milk

to help their ailing mother. They de-cide to sing in the marketplace to raise money. But an evil organ grinder, Brundibar, chases them away. With the help of a dog, a cat, a bird and the children of the town, they vanquish wicked Brundibar.

Wonder what evil leader served as Krasa’s role model for the character of Brundibar?

Aaron Gross, who portrays Pepicek in the new production, knows full well the bad guy is a metaphor for Hitler.

“Brundibar plays the organ so loudly no one can hear us sing,” says the Florida native. “He is on stilts and at the end of show we knock him off, so he loses his power.”

Kushner updated Adolph Hoffmeister’s original libretto, while Sendak (perhaps best known for “Where the Wild Things Are”) designed costumes and sets. The two previously collaborated on a book version of “Brundibar,” then teamed up for the operetta in 2003.

Gross is a precocious 11-year-old who has mixed “Brundibar” rehearsals with his Hebrew school studies. Even 3,000 miles from home, Gross has managed to keep up with his studies. He is a student at the Donna Klein Academy, a Jewish day school in Boca Raton, Fla.

He enjoys his Jewish studies, but even at his age Gross identifies with Gene Kelly’s famous battle cry: “Gotta sing! Gotta dance!” (Though he isn’t sure where he got his musical gifts. “My parents are tone-deaf,” he says.)

Gross first showed interest in performing at age 6 when he was cast in a show at his local Jewish Community Center. He later landed a role in the off-Broadway production of “The Stoop on Orchard Street,” a Jewish-themed musical. “That’s what I did last summer instead of sleep-away camp,” he says.

Gross and his fellow cast members had a chance to meet Tony Kushner, who is best known for serious plays like “Angels in America” and “Homebody/Kabul.” (Taccone directed one of the first productions of “Angels in America” at Berkeley Rep.) Though he may not be familiar with provocative masterpieces like “Angels in America,” Gross still thought Kushner was “cool.”

“He seems very nice,” says Goss. “He saw a rehearsal, wrote notes and gave them to us. I think it’s very cool how he changed [the libretto] into English. He made some of the parts better.”

Two years away from his bar mitzvah, Gross is already a veteran of the musical stage. Still, he grasps how rare a privilege it is to work with luminaries such as Kushner, Sendak and Taccone.

“I love being in front of an audience,” he says. “I’m psyched.”

“Brundibar” and “Comedy on the Bridge” play Tuesdays through Sundays, Nov. 11 through Dec. 28 at Berkeley Repertory Theater, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets: $15-$64. Information: (510) 647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.