'The People in the Picture' is out of focus on Broadway

people-in-the-picture.jpgA musical about the Holocaust?

The logical next line is for someone to sing "Springtime for Hitler in Germany." That, however, would indicate "The Producers" and a musical worth seeing.

Unfortunately, "The People in the Picture" at Roundabout Theatre Company, Studio 54, is not.

In it, Donna Murphy, who has won two Tony Awards, plays Raisel, a bubbie. Bubbie is Yiddish for grandmother, and she is explaining to her granddaughter, Jenny (Rachel Resheff), the people in old photos. She is telling of her life in Warsaw before the Nazis, and after.

Eventually, Raisel tells of how she saved her baby by giving her to a German woman. After the war, she collects her, and the baby grows up to be Red (Nicole Parker), a comedy writer and Jenny's mom. 

This is a powerful story, the sort that rings true. Yet it does not work. It does not work from the schmaltzy opening to the awful choreography. The stories are great, and the actors certainly give it their best, yet it falls flat from wooden writing.

The first languages this reviewer heard were Yiddish and English. I cherish the stories of my elders, and have made it my business that my children know Holocaust survivors to carry on their stories.

Though Murphy's Yiddish is spot-on and she seamlessly goes from being an old lady with a thick Polish Yiddish accent to her younger self without it, and she gives it her all, this play is just too obvious, too undeveloped and way too predictable to matter.

Along those lines, my son, for his Bar Mitzvah project, and I recently spent 10 hours interviewing a Holocaust survivor, a woman who was born in Germany in 1930. We have become friends and saw this together. I packed extra tissues. She was unmoved by this play, despite that she spent her childhood in various orphanages, and has a cousin who was also an infant given to a German family. And I, who have cried looking at strangers' photos of people the Nazis killed, sat dry-eyed throughout.

If this could not move such easy targets as the two of us, it gives a pretty good indication of how lacking it is.

From the opening number, I wondered if the lyricist hated the playwright and the juvenile songs were the revenge. Sadly, both are by the same person, Iris Rainer Dart, a veteran writer whose most famous work is "Beaches."

Yet those lyrics include "If Shakespeare found out what she did to his plots, he would." (Plotz in Yiddish means faint.)

Raisel was an actress in the Yiddish theater, a small troupe, which played the shtetl (ghetto) circuit. Raisel was lively, smart, fun and talented. She worked with a group of other actors, singers and dancers -- the people in the picture -- taken in 1935 when everyone was filled with hope.

The father of Red was a handsome actor who takes an offer to go to Hollywood. The others in the picture debate whether they should go Hollywood. In what should be a showstopper, "Remember Who You Are," they sing about what happens to Jews (Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson, Peter Lorre and Eddie Cantor, among others) when they go Hollywood: "They'll change your name, your hair and reinstall your foreskin."

All of the actors should be praised, if just for getting through this, and Jenny, who plays the granddaughter, is exceptional. Joyce Van Patten is also fun, but none of it saves the play from itself.

Musicals have been done about Jews running from terror -- "Fiddler on the Roof" being the prime example -- and more should be done. We do need to tell the children who the people in the picture are. It's vital that they know. It's just not vital that anyone see this.
Photo/Video credit: Joan Marcus
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