Velveteen Rabbit hopes to revive rich onstage tradition

This toy piano and a full-sized piano both appear in The J’s upcoming production of The Velveteen Rabbit.

Next week will feature the return of a very important program to The J when 13 superstar kids take the stage in Pizitz Auditorium to present The Velveteen Rabbit: A Toy Story. “This show is meant to be for kids, despite the bittersweet ending,” says Kat Graves, director of the endeavor. “It’s got monsters, talking busts, posh bunnies, and fun fight scenes. Younger kids will enjoy it, but it’s cute enough to be fun for the whole family.”

Show times will be Thursday, March 16, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, March 19, at 2:30 p.m. Ticket prices at the door will be $12 for adults and $10 for children (16 and under), but audience members will be able to save a few bucks by getting advance tickets online for only $9

“Theater is important because of its special sense of community,” Kat says. “It may seem like it’s only about putting on a show, but it’s more than that. It’s about exploring new things with friends and family while still having fun and being able to show off the hard work you’ve put in.” Theater means working together to accomplish something that everyone can enjoy, she adds, calling it the perfect balance between fun and responsibility.

In other words, it’s about kehillah (the Hebrew word for community), and the revived program tiptoes in the footsteps of the storied traditions of Yiddish and Jewish theater from across the United States and Europe.

“Theater is important because of its special sense of community,” says Kat Graves.

Despite the challenge of getting the word out about the launch of a new program, Kat is excited about her young cast and crew. “There is nothing better than seeing a kid get more confident in their acting ability and helping them find a place and feel comfortable in the community,” she says.

Kat would love to see The J’s theater program return to where it was in years past, when it produced as many as a half-dozen shows annually. Although Pizitz Auditorium was refreshed last year with a grant from the Daniel Foundation of Alabama, there’s still plenty of room for enhancement.

The program’s next production will be announced at the end of the two coming shows.

Break a leg, y’all!

A robust stage presence

Irving Stern started The J’s theater program, called the Center Players, in 1959 with a production of Inherit the Wind. A look back through decades of past seasons sheds light on a robust program that featured dozens of plays and musicals — from Disney productions like Peter Pan and Beauty and the Beast to Cabaret, Oliver, and The Diary of Anne Frank. Original works like Lots of Life, a musical comedy by twin brothers David and Don Garrett with music by Ron Dometrivich, also enjoyed time in the spotlight. 

The J’s theater program transitioned to youth about a decade ago and was planning a production of Charlotte’s Web in early 2020 when the pandemic hit. Theater was just one of the many things at The J that came to a screeching halt. Three years later, Velveteen is the first play to appear on stage since then.

In addition to writing, David Garrett was artistic director at The J in the early 2000s, during which time he directed a production of Gypsy. He recently revisited that moment through a Facebook post about a former cast member. 

David Garrett, artistic director at The J in the early 2000s, only recently realized that Oscar-nominee Daniel Scheinert (second from left, above) was a cast member in at least one play he directed, Gypsy, in 2002.

“Not sure where I’ve been,” David began, “but it was just yesterday that I figured out that Daniel Scheinert, who wrote and directed this year’s hit film Everything Everywhere All at Once [currently nominated for three Oscars], is the same Daniel Scheinert I directed years ago in a production of Gypsy at the LJCC.

“He was just a kid when I directed him,” David continued, “but he stood out because he was so respectful, very kind, extremely disciplined on stage… AND very talented.”

Velveteen Director Kat Graves, in turn, muses about what the future might hold for her cast and crew. “I love all of my girls and I can’t wait to see where they go after this,” she says.

Theater at The J: Then and now

The Velveteen Rabbit: A Toy Story is presented through special arrangement with and all authorized performance materials supplied by TRW Plays, 1180 Avenue of the Americas, Ste 640, New York, NY 10036;