[Archived from February 20, 2009]
[by Shiela Steinman Wallace]
When the curtain goes up on Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy at the Kentucky Center March 3-8, this Broadway show promises an exciting performance loaded with theatrical, acrobatic and musical adventures that will delight audience members, from the youngest to the oldest.
But this spectacle is also the tale of the uniquely Jewish journey of its creator and director. Neil Goldberg. “My journey,” he said, “has been a series of personal choices,” and many of them are not the choices one would expect from a Jew from a very observant family from Long Island.
Goldberg’s family has deep roots in New York City. In 1892, his great-grandfather, Mendel, for whom he was named, started a fabric store that still stands at 72 Hester St.
When he was young, Goldberg and his siblings, two brothers and sister, knew what their family expected of them – they would attend Jewish schools and go on to become doctors, lawyers and business entrepreneurs.
“They thought I would be a lawyer,” the entertainer quipped, “but here I am, singing and dancing.”
The Goldberg family also had strong connections to Israel, visiting the Jewish State on numerous occasions and even maintaining an apartment in Jerusalem. In fact, at age 15, he spent six months on a kibbutz, and he speaks Hebrew fluently.
Goldberg started his education according to plan at the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, but when, at age 6, his mother took him to see his first Broadway show, The Miracle Worker, “that’s when I got bit by the bug,” he said. “I wanted to be a scenic designer, and at that second, I knew one day I wanted to do something on Broadway.”
“When I was 7 years old,” he added, “I wrote my acceptance speech for my first Tony Award. I still have it tucked away!”
Still studying at the yeshiva, the young boy with dreams of Broadway found his options for exploring his artistic inclinations to be very limited. After much consternation, Goldberg’s parents accepted the guidance of a professional and enrolled him in the public schools for high school.
“That was a tremendous culture shock for me,” he observed. “Here I was, shomer Shabbos (Shabbat observant), never had a yarmulke off my head, winding up in a public school, still wearing a yarmulke.
“It was a drastic change,” he asserted, “but my strong values and understanding of Jewish tradition gave me a lot of backbone. I was able to overcome any insecurities about being in the public system.”
Still, Goldberg faced some challenges. Strongly drawn to the performing arts, he had trouble getting others involved in the productions to understand “why I couldn’t perform on the weekend. They couldn’t understand why I had to disappear at 4 on Friday and not be in touch again until an hour after three stars appeared in the sky on Saturday.”
Somehow, he succeeded in balancing his Jewish observance with his need to perform. He attended C.W. Post College and earned a degree in theater arts. The school, he explained, “is a 20-minute commute from my home. Throughout college, I maintained being shomer Shabbos and continued to eat kosher.”
Goldberg did not pursue his dreams immediately. He married young, had two children, Allison and Joshua, and sent them to yeshiva.
Still, the dream didn’t die. “In my mid to late 20’s,” he said, “I was really exploring my own imagination and arts.” Life and the culture surrounding him changed, and it was “more acceptable to pursue my artistic inclinations. I shed some of my strict Orthodox beliefs and pursued my theatrical career.”
For Goldberg, 1989 was a watershed year. He traveled to Europe and discovered the cirque genre. “I came back to the States and started my company, Cirque Productions,” which has been going strong ever since.
That doesn’t mean Goldberg has left his Jewish heritage behind. He describes the culture he has created in his cirque company as very family oriented. “I will bring performers to my home on Friday night to share my culture,” he explained. “I call my sister and ask her to make chulent for me so the performers can experience a traditional Shabbat dinner.”
If you look carefully at the current production, Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy, you can see Goldberg’s Jewish neshama (soul) shining through. “I was able to pull a lot of inspiration for transforming many of these artists into animals or creatures in the jungle from Noah’s ark,” he said, noting that many of the costumes, and even the rocking motion of one particular scene have their origins in that biblical story.
Faced with the challenge of designing a headpiece for the people who play giraffes, Goldberg created caps with giraffe ears and horns that have come to be known as giraffe yarmulkes, even on the props list.
Goldberg is very proud of the company he has built. “Our religion has such great values,” he said, “that it makes us, as a people, very passionate, caring and compassionate.” That, he believes has contributed to his ability to create the diverse company that comprises Cirque Productions.
“There are 26 performers in Jungle Fantasy,” he stated. “They come from eight countries and speak 12 different languages. … I have great respect for the diversity of culture in the world, and, in fact, I needed to create that respect for myself to put myself out in society and to follow my dreams.”
Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy, a Broadway Series production, will be performed March 3-8 at the Kentucky Center. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, show time is 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 6:30 p.m. There are also matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday.