I first encountered the enormously talented Michelle Azar last May when I saw her in the hit show, Bronco Billy, at the Skylight Theatre Company. She played the villainous Constance, an operatic diva, a performance I called, “an over-the-top, Cruella-de-Vil-esque delight.” So it was with great anticipation that I motored over to the Skirball Center to catch her one-woman show, From Baghdad to Brooklyn, the multi-generational story of her family.
The structure of Ms. Azar’s show is not linear, but rather a construct that leaps back and forth in time to reveal the individual stories of the essential family unit. The passionate recounting of her family’s history begins in Baghdad with her father, Shaul Azariahu (later Americanized as Saul Azar), an Iraqi-born Jew. She first portrays him as a mischievous young boy who loves to jump, an action that she performs repeatedly throughout with giddy delight. Her mom, Marsha Singer Azar, is portrayed as an accomplished, “vivacious…dynamic woman with a powerful voice,” who grew up in Brooklyn. Her bubbi, Ada Pickelney, was born in Poland and, at the age of thirteen, suffered the untimely death of her mother while on the boat to Ellis Island. Fearful of her father, who came to New York ahead of his family, she went to Brooklyn to live with her sisters, where “she found her interest in academia and acting.” It is easy to see where and how Michelle Azar became a scintillating talent.
Ms. Azar employs song and dance throughout to illustrate and emphasize the various story threads of her family. She gives the audience tantalizing snippets of songs from Broadway shows–Funny Girl, Annie, Chorus Line, and more. She returns again and again to that touchstone of Jewish life, Fiddler on the Roof, the wondrous universality of which can touch the hearts of everyone. She has an operatic voice of tremendous power and range and when she spins out those achingly gorgeous high notes, she leaves me wanting more.
Serious when it needs to be, I cannot neglect to say that From Baghdad to Brooklyn bursts with joyful, giddy comedy. There were peals of laughter, vigorous guffaws, chortles, and snickers.
Accompanied throughout by Elizabeth Yaron at the piano and Asher Shasho Levy on the oud, Michelle does not neglect singing songs in Hebrew that touch the hearts of even those who don’t know the language. And I was glad to hear the unique tones of the oud, the sound of which goes straight to my heart and reaches beyond religion and ethnicity.
From Baghdad to Brooklyn, presented at the Skirball Cultural Center is written and performed by Michelle Azar, directed by Brian Kite, with Lauren “Coco” Cohn as creative consultant.
I wish I could say that From Baghdad to Brooklyn continues here in Los Angeles, but so far as I know it does not. However, Ms. Azar has toured with this show and hopefully she will come back. It was a full house at Skirball’s Magnin Auditorium. There is definitely an audience.
Just got word that Ms. Azar will perform December 8th in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and then April 18 at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.