Monday, March 1, 2010

Theater Review: Signs of Life

Music, Character Development Misplaced in Story of Jews at Terezin
By Lauren Yarger
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

Christians might also like to know:
• Language
• Sex outside of marriage
• Suicide attempt
• God’s name taken in vain
• Sexual dialogue and situations

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play concept, "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Intensive and other training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women. She is a former vice preseint and voting member of The Drama Desk.

She is a freelance writer and playwright (member Dramatists Guild of America). She is a member if the The Outer Critics Circle (event manager for the annual awards ceremony), The American Theater Critics Association, The League of Professional Theatre Women and the Drama League. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She also is a member of the Episcopal Actors' Guild, the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts and The O'Neill Theatre Center..

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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