The PNE is hosting a celebration of the 20th anniversary of Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance! and, on Aug. 24, 4:30 p.m., there will be a show featuring 2014 participants in the program, Perry Ehrlich’s ShowStoppers and Sound Sensation troupes, as well as some past participants in these programs. (photo from Perry Ehrlich)
There are several anniversaries in Vancouver’s arts scene this year. It’s the 50th for the Arts Club and the 25th for Bard on the Beach, for example, but the one that hits closest to home is the 20th for the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver’s resident summer musical theatre program, Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance! (GSGD).
The brainchild of local lawyer Perry Ehrlich, this program grew from a relatively inauspicious start to become one of the premier children’s musical programs in the Lower Mainland. In an interview with the Independent, Ehrlich noted that it all started when he tried to enrol his daughter, Lisa, in musical theatre classes.
“I realized that when I was looking around at the various offerings that I could do a better job and, if I participated with Lisa, it would be an outlet for my creativity and a playground for my daughter and myself. I thought when my kids were finished, that would be the end of it. I never thought it would last for more than five or six years – but I fell in love with the kids and the process and here we are 20 years later!”
Ehrlich, a pianist, has a strong musical background. While at law school at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, he played for dinner theatre at a downtown hotel and was the musical director of the faculty’s annual Legal Follies. He also was co-director of Sound Sensation, which rehearsed in Richmond. GSGD owes its name to that group: when Ehrlich was looking for new members for the group, he put an ad in the Vancouver Sun setting out the required qualifications, “Gotta sing, gotta dance.” When searching for a name for his “baby,” he was reminded of that ad and the rest is history.
Over the years, hundreds of youngsters from 9-19 have come to the JCCGV every summer from all over British Columbia, the United States, Europe and Israel to participate in one of the two three-week sessions. Each session culminates in a public performance at the Rothstein Theatre with a bespoke Broadway-like production penned by Ehrlich.
“By writing my own show, we get to do not 10 but 30 songs, all choreographed, so everyone of the kids gets to do something. My philosophy is to teach the kids to get along with each other and to work as a team to develop both personally and artistically – the younger ones work with the older ones and we are like a family.”
Ehrlich treats participants like adults and the program is set up like a school, six hours a day, and the kids are expected to behave responsibly and with respect towards their fellow students and the teachers. Ehrlich has high expectations for his charges and pushes the kids to their limits.
“I don’t want them to be second rate,” he said. “Mediocrity is not an option. With only 13 days from start to end of rehearsal and then three days of performance, this is a pretty intense experience.”
The teachers are a world-class staff with the likes of choreographer Lisa Stevens, actor Josh Epstein and musician Wendy Bross-Stuart. Noting that one of the dance teachers choreographed the Olympic opening ceremonies, Ehrlich said, “The kids are exposed to that message of excellence.”
His three keys to success? “To stand up, speak up and know when to shut up.”
In addition to the base program, Ehrlich runs a finishing school for two hours after each day of GSGD for serious students who get instruction in auditioning techniques from local professionals.
Ehrlich takes the crème de la crème from his annual programs and invites them to participate in a year-round group appropriately named – from what this writer observed while sitting in a rehearsal – ShowStoppers. This mix of energetic, talented young teens performs together up to 20 times a year at such events as the BMO Vancouver Marathon, the Santa Claus and Canada Day parades and the opening ceremonies of the Special Olympics. On Aug. 24, 4:30 p.m., there will be a 20th-anniversary performance at the PNE.
Andrew Cohen, who recently emceed Louis Brier Jewish Aged Foundation’s Eight Over Eighty event, is an alumnus, one of the founding members of ShowStoppers and now a faculty member of the program. “I remember looking forward to summer vacation every year knowing that I would be going to GSGD,” he told the JI. “It grounded me and taught me respect and the work ethic you need to succeed in the industry. It gave me an edge over other kids when it came time to audition for parts. Theatre is an incredible outlet for growing kids. It teaches them the necessary social skills, to have confidence and speak out and up for themselves.” As to the success of the program, Cohen said, “I would say that GSGD is synonymous with children’s talent in Vancouver.”
Parent Mark Rozenberg was effusive in his praise of GSGD, in which two of his children participated. “It allows kids with a passion for singing, acting and dancing to learn and to practise their passion. It is the most amazing program with some of the best instructors. When I sent my children off to the JCC every day in the summer, I knew they were in good hands.”
Nathan Sartore, a current ShowStoppers participant, could not contain his enthusiasm for the program. “It is such an important part of my life and means everything to me,” he said. “I can’t imagine my life without it.”
“I watch these kids coming in as shy, quiet youngsters and see them leave as confident performers…. I teach and expect the kids to make a full-out commitment but also to have fun and laugh.”
Ehrlich said that he was bullied as a child and feels that many young people involved in musical theatre have faced some sort of bullying for their artistic passions. “I see my job as providing a safe, happy, nurturing, learning space where all the kids can develop confidence and self-esteem,” he explained. “I watch these kids coming in as shy, quiet youngsters and see them leave as confident performers. They get the opportunity to work as a team and make lifelong friends in an environment where people are loving and caring. I teach and expect the kids to make a full-out commitment but also to have fun and laugh.”
Ehrlich is grateful to the community for its financial support of GSGD through scholarship funds like the Babe Oreck Memorial Fund and the Phyllis and Irving Snider Foundation, so that no child is turned away from the program for financial reasons.
“I am no different than any father who coaches basketball or baseball,” said Ehrlich. “I am doing exactly what they are doing, creating teams, teaching excellence, building confidence and skills. All of us, in our own way, are giving these kids something productive to do, not just hanging around the local 7-Eleven.”
Productivity aside, walk by the Rothstein Theatre on any given summer weekday and you will hear the sounds of joy coming through the doors. You gotta love it.
Tova Kornfeld is a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.