JTOP returns to Pittsburgh theater scene

JTOP returns to Pittsburgh theater scene

The curtain is set to rise again for the Jewish Theater of Pittsburgh, this time in a different venue.

Tito Braunstein, the founder of JTOP, is gearing up for the June 2012 re-launch of the professional theater company that has been on hiatus since 2006.

Braunstein, who at 83, still serves as the not-for-profit company’s artistic director and producer, clearly has a passion for Jewish theater and culture.

“I don’t think Pittsburgh necessarily needs another theater company,” he told the Chronicle, “but it does need a Jewish theater company.”

Braunstein founded JTOP in 2000, and its first production premiered in November 2001. During the company’s five-year run, Braunstein produced 19 shows in the Katz Performing Arts Center of the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill.

This time around, the shows will be staged in Levy Hall of Rodef Shalom Congregation.

“We’re thrilled the Jewish Theater of Pittsburgh is coming to Rodef Shalom because we would like to provide a venue for this very important cultural activity in Pittsburgh,” said Jeffrey Herzog, executive director of the congregation.

Herzog said JTOP will dovetail with the music series the congregation already hosts.

“We want very much to be a community center,” he said. “This is one more venue to have people in our facility to be culturally enriched.”

JTOP productions have included perennial favorites such as “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The Sisters Rosensweig,” but Braunsten has produced more modern plays, as well, such as “Lebensraum,” and “The Last Five Years.”

The plays were all “of Jewish character, experience and cultural values,” according to Braunstein.

“We attempted to fulfill the mandate of our charter, to offer theater of the highest quality with universal appeal,” he said. “We provided theater that explored ideas concerning humanity and community from a Jewish perspective, and from others as well. We tried to stimulate thinking, to touch the heart and to jog the memory.”

Active in the theater arts since he was 12, Braunstein’s performance experience has run the gamut from playing a bride at the University of Pittsburgh (“with a white dress, wigs, boobs, the whole thing”), to singing in the Beth Shalom choir for 42 years and serving as its director for 25.

Born in Pittsburgh, and raised in the Hill District and the East End, Braunstein attended Peabody High School, where he directed his senior play. He went on to study pre-law at the University of Pittsburgh, but spent most of his free time there in the theater and the glee club. He got his law degree from Pitt, and practiced law until 2000. When he closed his law office that year, at the age of 71, he established JTOP.

In 2006, Braunstein became ill. Because he was unable to find anyone to take his place as artistic director and producer, JTOP went dark. In the fall of 2011, after his health improved, Braunstein decided to pick up where he left off, and open the doors to Jewish theater in Pittsburgh once again — this time, at Rodef Shalom.

The congregation is allowing JTOP to use Levy Hall without charge.

“This is a beautiful space because it’s compact,” Braunstein said of the hall. “It only has about 325 seats. It’s a beautiful performing space.”

Braunstein has assembled a production team for his shows, including set designer Tony Ferrieri, and directors Marci Woodruff and Mindy Rossi-Stabler, all well-respected members of the Pittsburgh theater community.

“This is a professional company,” Braunstein said. “There is no question about it. I’ve got the best people in town.”

Two shows are slated for JTOP’s first season back:

• “That’s Life,” an original musical revue that had a long life off-Broadway, will open June 12 and run through June 24. The production consists of 17 songs that are based upon 12 true stories.

• “Driving Miss Daisy,” by Alfred Uhry, will open in November.

“I think theater is a vital and essential part of the cultural life of our Jewish people,” Braunstein said. “I believe there is nothing that can compare with live theater. To portray a Jewish character, the Jewish experience, Jewish values, and our life in America is a significant and important message to convey to the general community, as well as to our Jewish people who aren’t terribly familiar with our cultural life.”

Braunstein is still fundraising for the theater’s re-launch, and has assembled a board of directors to help get it off the ground. So far, though, he has encountered a warm reception to JTOP’s return.

“It’s been several years since the Jewish theater has been on stage,” he said. “But wherever I go, people say they miss the theater.”

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.)

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