Purim, ‘the underdog of Jewish holidays,’ gets a musical treatment

Listen 2:06
The Spice Guards perform a number about murdering the king to the tune of a melody of Spice Girls songs during

The Spice Guards perform a number about murdering the king to the tune of a melody of Spice Girls songs during "A Very Awesome Purim" at Ruba Club in Northern Liberties. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

Josh Silverbauer is standing on stage warming up the crowd before “A Very Awesome Purim,” giving some context to the story they’re about to hear.

“Purim is the greatest Jewish celebration. What other holiday is a cross between Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day, and a low-budget production of Rocky Horror at your local synagogue?” Josh asked. “Tonight, we’re going to tell you the story of a time when an evil man tried to annihilate all the Jews… No, not that time.”

The play is composed entirely of song parodies reworked to tell the story of when Queen Esther, a Jewish Persian queen in 400 B.C.E., thwarted a plot by the King’s evil advisor, Haman, to kill all the Jews in the region.

Very Awesome Arts, a theatre company in South Philly, celebrates every year by producing an over-the-top, farcical musical based on the story of the “underrated” holiday.

Josh and Rachael Silverbauer started their annual production of “A Very Awesome Purim” as a way to entertain friends in the married couple’s cramped West Philly living room.

“People loved having a play at a party, which is kind of what it grew out of,” Josh says. “But then it became so popular that the play became the focus.”

But for the last four years, the couple’s given the show a more theatrical treatment at the Ruba Club in Northern Liberties.

Co Writer/Director Josh Silverbauer pulls triple duty narrating channeling Elton John during “A Very Awesome Purim” at Ruba Club in Northern Liberties. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

The cast is composed of about a dozen longtime friends, many of whom met at Cheltenham High School in Wyncote, while Rachael and Josh met working together at a coffee shop. The cast performs musical parodies in full costume, a Purim tradition that dates back to Italy during the Renaissance.

The theme of the show is voted on by fans every year, and this year’s theme is Pop Legends, meaning the story is told entirely through parodies of pop songs from the likes of Beyoncé, Michael Jackson and Bruno Mars.

When Haman’s plot to kill the Jews was discovered, Queen Esther vowed to thwart his plans and channeled Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” to “Save ‘em All.” Haman was sentenced to death, so he and Esther did their best “A Star is Born” impression, singing him “off to the gallows now.” And the King, dressed as Elvis of course, sang about how he can’t help “falling in love with Jews.”

Rachael Silverbauer, who plays Lady Esther (also in the vein of Lady Gaga), says the success of the show is largely due to their talented cast members.

Co Writer/Director Rachael Silverbauer pulls triple duty playing Queen Esther during “A Very Awesome Purim” at Ruba Club in Northern Liberties. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

“Josh and I were never the leads in the show. We like to call ourselves ‘the Lin-Manuels,’ since we like to write the show and then put ourselves in it,” Rachael joked. “We put very talented friends in the spotlight with us and they help us do amazing things.”

Josh laughs at the comparison to the Hamilton playwright. “We are the Jewish Lin-Manuel. You can put that on record,” he said.

“A Very Awesome Purim” is clever, lighthearted and pithy — the result of months of writing and rehearsing every weekend.

Josh and Rachael Silverbauer are partners in writing/directing and life. For the past nine years they have been writing a Purim musicals. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

“As we’re talking to you, the cast is breaking down the set,” Rachael said. “Everyone is just willing to just roll up their sleeves, from performing to making the props. It’s just refreshing and awesome.”

Josh, who plays the narrator billed as “Elton Jew,” hopes to educate more people about the story behind Purim, which he calls “the underdog of Jewish holidays.”

“Most people have never really heard of it, so they go into it and they’re like, ‘I don’t know what this thing is, so I’m just gonna go with it,’” Josh says.

Lauren Braun lives in Havertown, but grew up going to synagogue in Mount Airy. At intermission of the show, her first time attending, she said that Purim has a positive reputation in the Jewish community, but gentiles don’t pay it the same respect.

“In America, we only pay attention to Hanukkah because of Christmas,” she said. “The main thing about the holiday is the freedom of celebration, overcoming the threats that face us, and meeting the challenge and succeeding. I really like that message.”

The Silverbauers hope the show continues to build on the popularity it’s gained over the last nine years, so more people will learn about and appreciate the holiday.

Co Writer/Director Rachael Silverbauer pulls triple duty playing Queen Esther (center) on the opening night of “A Very Awesome Purim,” on March 6th 2020, at Ruba Club in Northern Liberties. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Help us get to 100% of our membership goal to support the reporters covering our region, the producers bringing you great local programs and the educators who teach all our children.