A madcap do-over for the bar mitzvah that never was

Dan Plonsey passed on the chance to become a bar mitzvah when he was 13. Nearly 40 years later, he’s reconsidered.

“Dan Plonsey’s Bar Mitzvah” combines music, dance and Torah chanting in a comically chaotic performance piece atypical of the Jewish Music Festival. Yet that is where the show, commissioned by the festival, will make its premiere.

It will take place July 11 at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum — and kippahs are optional.

An unabashedly autobiographical work, the show stars its creator and namesake, an El Cerrito composer who pays the bills working as a math teacher at Berkeley High School. In the piece he plays a guy named Dan Plonsey, a composer who teaches high school math.

Dan Plonsey photo/luiza silva

Plonsey, 51, also cast his wife, co-author Mantra Plonsey, as his wife. Co-director Eric Kupers choreographed the Dandelion Dancetheater company, whose members portray all the bar mitzvah attendees, from the punks at the kids’ table to bubbe and zayde. On top of all that, there’s a 12-piece orchestra.

“It’s a pretty large ensemble,” Plonsey says. “It’s gotten way out of hand. We just kept adding people.”

The plot centers on Plonsey’s struggle with his Jewish identity and the role of ritual in daily life. He decides to have an adult bar mitzvah, then loses his Torah portion and speech just before the ceremony, which throws the proceedings into chaos. “We have to scramble,” he says. “All the decisions are bad ones. People give horrible speeches. I finally lose it.”

The composer wrote music to match the frenzied spirit of a real bar mitzvah. Standing at the bimah, Plonsey plays his Torah trope on the saxophone.

“I didn’t want to write klezmer music per se, as much as I love it, because I didn’t want it to be a cliché,” he says. “I wanted it to be my music, but with the tiniest bit of the kind of dance music you might have at a bar mitzvah.”

Thus it is horn heavy, with flourishes of Bernstein, Gershwin, Frank Zappa and even something reminiscent of Balinese gamelan bells. Plonsey jokes that he calls his style “the music of El Cerrito.”

Jewish Music Festival director Ellie Shapiro was familiar with Plonsey’s music, most notably his opera “Leave Me Alone!” co-authored with comic book writer Harvey Pekar. Shapiro commissioned a piece, though at first Plonsey had no idea what to write.

It was Shapiro who suggested a musical bar mitzvah, an idea that gained currency as Plonsey watched his own 13-year-old son ponder whether to have a bar mitzvah himself. That’s when those long-lost feelings came flooding back.

“My parents were good,” he says of their support for his decision to skip the bar mitzvah, “but everyone else in the family was playing the ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ soundtrack nonstop and talking about all the gifts they were going to give me.”

Plonsey’s Jewish upbringing in Cleveland had more to do with left-wing politics than religion.

“That’s largely how I think of being Jewish,” Plonsey says, adding that his parents “had done such a good job convincing me all people were equal, I couldn’t quite figure out why I should differentiate myself as Jewish, especially when I didn’t believe in the religion.”

That changed over time. A sax player from an early age, Plonsey followed two parallel career tracks, majoring in math and music at Yale and, later, at Mills College in Oakland. Musically, he delved into avant-garde jazz early on, even as he embarked on a career in computer programming.

Eventually he chucked that for the teaching job at Berkeley High, a post that came with a price. “I grew up in an age when being an authority [figure] was a horrible thing,” Plonsey says. “Now I’m one of the bad guys, not liking all the responsibility.”

That real-life dilemma figures into the new show, as the fictional Dan Plonsey decides to have a bar mitzvah “partly just to celebrate becoming an adult.”

That means for “Dan Plonsey’s Bar Mitzvah,” the real-life Plonsey takes the spotlight, something he feared as a shy young teenager.

“I flipped from someone who was shy to someone who likes being the center of things, at least some of the time,” says Plonsey. “ I still think of myself as awkward. I now kind of enjoy that about myself. It really amuses me.”


“Dan Plonsey’s Bar Mitzvah”
with the Dandelion Dancetheater premieres at 1 and 4 p.m. July 11 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. $18-$22. Information: (800) 838-3006 or www.jewishmusicfestival.org.

 

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.