By Rochelle Maruch Miller
From the moment Ashley Blaker took center stage at New York’s Gramercy Theatre last December, the internationally acclaimed comedy performer formed an instant bond with his audience, igniting a connection that maintained its power throughout the entire enchanted evening. With his charismatic stage presence, spot-on material and impeccable delivery, Ashley’s performance was pure gold.
Since then, we have weathered four Nor’easters, power outages and Pesach preparations and would readily welcome and appreciate a healthy dose of Ashley’s hilarious humor. Happily, the British are coming – and by that I mean Ashley will be returning for an extended off-Broadway run of Strictly Unorthodox at the Theater Center in New York City, from May 27-June 28 and the excitement is palpable!
For a Torah-observant performer to have a show in the heart of Broadway is quite extraordinary. The Theater Center is the only off-Broadway theater to have a Broadway address. Located opposite School of Rock and around the corner from Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen, it is also just down the road from Stephen Colbert.
I caught up with the congenial comedy star who graciously shared his thoughts with our readers.
Rochelle Maruch Miller: Ashley, what inspired your much anticipated return to the United States and the extended run of “Strictly Unorthodox”?
Ashley Blaker: Greed. Oh sorry, does that sound bad? Oh erm … to be able to give more tzedakah from the proceeds. That sounds better, doesn’t it?
In all honesty, this was always the plan. We did one show in December to dip a toe in the water (I always recommend that before getting in the mikveh) and see if people would come along and enjoy it. And the good news was they came, and it sold out with a week to go. Plus people seemed to be able to understand my accent, and would you believe it – American and British Jews laugh at the same stuff!
I wasn’t sure, but you have shuls in the United States just like we do, you have the same people in them that we have, you have the same Yomim Tovim (I always wondered if Pesach was just a British thing). So we are able to laugh at the same things and everyone had a good time.
So now we’re back for 35 shows – seven shows a week for five weeks including two matinees.
RMM: What can audiences expect?
AB: I don’t want to give too much away, but I hope they get their money’s worth because I like to perform for 90 minutes or so and make sure we get all the laughter in the room that is possible.
RMM: What have you been up to since last we spoke?
AB: I have been so busy. For a start, I spent Shabbos in the Five Towns for the first time! I had a great time staying with a wonderful family in Cedarhurst, I davened in Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst and then I performed a short spot at their annual dinner which was in honor of Aryeh Davis and his wife. Aryeh had requested they get me so how could I refuse?
Since then, I performed my second Israel tour, which took me to Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, Netanya, and Ra’anana, and was great fun with full houses and very enthusiastic audiences (roughly split between Brits and Americans).
I also made a Purim video with Rabbi Sacks … sorry, Rabbi Lord Sacks … which some of your readers may have seen. He is such an incredible man so it was a real honor when his office approached me and asked if I would do something with him for Purim. Again, how could I refuse?
I have also just performed a West End show for a non-Jewish audience explaining what Orthodox Jewish life is like (not sure they believe me!) and will be taking this show to the Edinburgh Festival this August. This week I am also recording my BBC show, so it’s pretty non-stop.
I even found time to film a video for rabbis across the world taking part in a rabbinic enrichment program run by Yeshiva University. They asked me to teach them how to use humor in their sermons. I tried not to do too good a job though, as I don’t want to have too much competition!
RMM: What are your thoughts on American audiences?
AB: The audiences aren’t that different to the U.K. As I said the last time we spoke, Americans do like it if we make the effort and ensure every bit of language and each reference is American-friendly. The last time I was in New York, I realized a couple of British-isms still slipped through the net. I said “torch” when I should have said “flashlight” and also pronounced “amenities” in a British way (a-mean-a-ties). Apologies! It won’t happen again!
RMM: I had the pleasure of seeing your show at the Gramercy Theatre last December. It was hysterical – I couldn’t stop laughing! You certainly captivated your audience; many of us laughed so hard, we were in tears! What response did the show elicit from the media?
AB: I was blown away by the response and it was amazing to see so much press coverage. That week I was even on the cover of Jewish newspapers in Chicago and L.A.!
It is so funny to see how similar our lives are, albeit separated by 3,500 miles. We struggle with the same issues and so we can laugh at the same things.
RMM: As a successful comedy performer, what do you find most rewarding?
AB: It is genuinely the greatest feeling hearing an entire room laughing and when people message me saying they had been feeling low and my show cheered them up, that’s obviously incredibly rewarding.
Humor can really bring people together and it is always wonderful when I see very different people in my audience, from sheitel and black hat wearers to Modern Orthodox to Conservative to Reform, and even the completely unaffiliated. We are so polarized nowadays and it’s very rare that such a wide range of Jews come together for anything. I am very proud of the fact that my shows seem to be one of those rare exceptions. It also gives me a chance to offend a very wide range of people!
RMM: What message would you like to convey to our readers?
AB: Hmmm, well, please come along, for a start!
Would you believe a kosher sushi restaurant (Café 11) is opening right next door to the theater after Pesach, so it was meant to be. They must have known I was coming. You can have your sushi before, see me, and then have some more after the show. Oh, and we Jews like a bargain, right? So they’ll want to know it’s cheaper if they phone the theater box office rather than book on Ticketmaster as you avoid all their charges. And come and say hello. I will be staying in the city for six weeks on my own so I look forward to making new friends and getting to know as many new people as possible.
Rochelle Maruch Miller is a contributing editor for the Five Towns Jewish Times. She is a journalist, creative media consultant, lecturer, and educator, and writes for magazines, newspapers, websites, and private clients. She welcomes your comments at Rochellemiller04@aol.com.