Jewish artists, political activists, homosexuals and anyone not deemed Arian enough by Hitler were imprisioned in the Czech city of Terezin during World War II. There the artists were forced to paint pictures of the “happy” life within the ghetto’s walls to mislead visiting Red Cross workers visiting the city.
Unbeknownst to the Nazis, artists, realizing they faced certain death, created other images depicting the true horrors of starvation, illness and executions they experienced at Terezin and secreted them in the walls and crawlspaces of the city's buildings. Some escaped detection and survive to this day to tell their story.
Now imagine if while I was telling you all that, the Jews and the Nazis were belting out songs – tons of them – and you’ll have an accurate picture of your own describing Amas Musical Theatre’s Signs of Life playing its world premiere Off-Broadway at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theatre.
Peter Ullian’s book almost seems to clash occasionally with Joel Derfner’s music (lyrics by Len Schiff). The show is directed by Jeremy Dobrish. It's hard to tell sometimes whether you have landed in the middle of “Schindler’s List,” Les Miserables or “Springtime for Hitler.” It’s really a shame, because the story of the Jews in Terezin is one that should be told.
Nic Cory as Jonas and Patricia Noonan as Lorelei Schumann
with Kurt Zischke as Commandant Raum and Allen E. Read as Officer Heindel. Joan Marcus photo.
The protagonist is artist Lorelei Schumann (Patricia Noonan), who is sent to the city Hitler called his “gift to the Jews” with her grandfather, Jacob (Stuart Zagnit), little brother, Wolfie (Gabe Green), fellow artist Jonas (Nic Cory), political agitator and subsequent love interest Simon Muller (Wilson Bridges), entertainer Kurt Gerard (Jason Collins) and the most interesting, but most underdeveloped character of them all, Berta Pluhar (Erika Amato), a Jew who converted to Christianity, renounced by her husband who wants to move up in the Nazi Party.
Amato does justice the show's best song, a chilling “Home Again Soon,” in which Berta shares her heartbreak over trying to comfort children in the camp who ultimately will be sent to Auschwitz. It’s followed by an equally moving response, “Mourner’s Kaddish” sung by Jacob. This is where the story, staging and music (Mike Pettry plays keboard and directs three other musicians offstage), all come together. Unfortunately it’s the only time it happens in the show. Most of the rest of the music seems out of place with singing Nazis and performers who appear to be in belting contests in song after song, many performed in a continuous operatic style, seemingly without end. I glanced at the program well into the first act to incredulously discover they still were singing just the second song.
I wanted to like this show, but couldn’t engage in World War II while I was caught up in the battle of the show’s elements clashing all over the place. The costumes (Jennifer Caprio), for example, seemed too nice and clean under the circumstances.
Then there's the dialogue. Simon’s bumbling attempts to express his feelings for Lorelei are cute at first, but soon wear thin, though Bridges does a fine job of playing the love-struck, tongue-tied boy. Much dialogue has an unnatural sound to it with fluctuations between formal and colloquial like this exchange between a starving Kurt and Lorelei, who agrees to give him one of her dumplings for a kiss:
“A kiss will do, thank you very much. It satisfies my girlish curiosity without too severely compromising my virtue.”
“You’re not going to tell me you’re a virgin?"
“That, Mr. Gerard, is none of your damn business!”
“Please. Kurt. And you?”
“You may call me Miss Schumann.”
Before you have time to ask, “What the heck?” Simon is belting another song.
Lorelei is inexplicably complacent about going to the ghetto and creating what the Nazis want at first, but finally comes to agree with Jonas about painting the truth when she realizes the Nazis aren’t really all that nice. The characters and plot don’t get a chance to develop as much as we’d like and while Terezin’s legacy is one that deserves to be shared, it just doesn’t come together here.
One of the highlights of the show, however, is Alex Distler’s set. Images from the city are projected onto a scrim before the Jews are sent to Terezin. When they arrive, the scrim gives way to a backdrop of stacks of luggage, with creative use of suitcases as props throughout. Also moving is an exhibition in the theater's hallway of some of the actual surviving artwork from Terezin.
Signs of Life plays at the theater inside the YMCA at 5 West 63rd St. through March 21. Post-show discussions have been scheduled as follows:
• March 2 Matinee: Barbara Siesel & Phillip Silver, Juilliard Graduate and Daughter of a Survivor, Colby College Professor Specializing in Music of the Terezin Period
• March 6 Matinee: Edgar Krasa, Terezin Survivor Regularly Performed in the Ghetto.
• March 6 Evening: Fred Terna, internationally recognized artist and scholar
• March 7 Matinee: Edgar Krasa
• March 9 Evening: Gisela Adamski, Terezin Survivor, speaker and member of Holocaust Survivors Inc., Queens Chapter
• March 16 Matinee: Sol Rosenkranz, Terezin Survivor and Volunteer at The Museum Of Jewish Heritage at Battery Park
• March 20 Matinee: Anita Schorr & Stephen Herz, a child survivor of Terezin and Frequent Speaker, Poet and Author of a Collection Inspired by the Terezin Period
• March 20 Evening: John Freund, Terezin survivor and one of the "Boys Of Birkenau."
Tickets are $55 for adults and $40 for seniors and students and $40 for all previews and can be purchased by calling 212-352-3101 or online at www.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/425.
Christians might also like to know:
• Sex outside of marriage
• Suicide attempt
• God’s name taken in vain
• Sexual dialogue and situations