Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 28, 2011
The People in the Picture Book & lyrics by Iris Rainer Dart. Music by Mike Stoller & Artie Butler. Directed by Leonard Foglia. Musical staging by Andy Blankenbuehler. Musical direction by Paul Gemignani. Set design by Riccardo Hernández. Costume design by Ann Hould-Ward. Lighting design by James F. Ingalls. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Projection design by Elaine J. McCarthy. Hair & wig design by Paul Huntley. Makeup design by Angelina Avallone. Orchestrations by Michael Starobin. Cast: Donna Murphy, with Alexander Gemignani, Christopher Innvar, Nicole Parker, Rachel Resheff, Hal Robinson, Lewis J. Stadlen, Joyce Van Patten, Chip Zien, Brad Bradley, Rachel Bress, Jeremy Davis, Emilee Dupré, Maya Goldman, Louis Hobson, Shannon Lewis, Andie Mechanic, Jessica Lea Patty, Megan Reinking, Jeffrey Schecter, Paul Anthony Stewart, Lori Wilner, Stuart Zagnit
If you’re thinking, “Wait a second — that’s the length of the standard Broadway intermission!”, then give yourself extra credit. Few shows in recent memory have presented such a whiplash-inducing disparity between the quality of their two acts as this one. Iris Rainer Dart (book and lyrics), Mike Stoller and Artie Butler (music), and Leonard Foglia (director) have delivered something that starts as a twee, tired, and downright impenetrable tuner about the before, during, and after of the Warsaw Ghetto, but that ends as an unbelievably powerful look at the history we create and destroy, and the lives that are shattered or strengthened in our wakes.
The show is at its best when the family story at its core is told with the least amount of filigree. The chief tension is between Raisel (Donna Murphy) and her daughter, Red (Nicole Parker), who are living together with Red’s daughter, Jenny (Rachel Resheff), in a cramped New York apartment in the late 1970s. Raisel is clearly nearing the end of her days, and becoming less able to cope — she’s begun talking to invisible friends all the time and neglecting everyone around her to the point that Red believes the only solution is an assisted-care facility. Raisel won’t have that, either — she doesn’t want to miss a minute’s opportunity to pass on to Jenny the stories of the Jewish traditions and people she knew long ago as an actress in Eastern Europe.
Red, however, forbids that. She doesn’t even want her mother uttering so much as a syllable of Yiddish — every time she hears it, she all but winces in physical agony. What causes this, and why? And who are those two people in the faded photograph that Jenny discovered, a couple Red also has no patience for discussing? It turns out that Raisel has not been entirely forthcoming about her past, and that the woman she’s pretended to be for decades is not necessarily the one she’s always been. As the layers of her deceit and Red’s anger begin falling away, they reveal a tale of such loss, pain, and tragedy, yet one informed with explosive and inspirational life, that you cannot pry your eyes from their struggle.
As Raisel edges closer to death, and Red and Jenny ever further from learning who she was and why she’s done everything she has, their relationships take on numerous complex and most importantly human dimensions. Through songs and dialogue that challenge both the path of the past and the direction of the future, and force everyone to re-examine their prejudices about right and wrong as applied to others and themselves, The People in the Picture becomes an achingly affecting antidote to the plethora of recent musicals, from this season and others, that throw everything at you except honesty. And, for the record, at the performance I attended, the frequency and intensity of sobs coursing through the theater as the finale approached definitely matched — and quite likely surpassed — what can be heard at the just-opened War Horse.
Unfortunately, nothing even approximating the emotional strength and capacity of these scenes is to be found in Act I. Though the action spends a bit of desultory time with the modern trio, it primarily focuses on Raisel’s visions of the Poland crew, who often seem to be living an episode of As the Warsaw Turns. Raisel is a young woman in a celebrated acting troupe, creating plays and films with her lover Chaim (Chris Innvar), but he soon decamps for Hollywood and leaves her and his colleagues behind. She’s already pregnant with his baby, though, so she marries his gay producing partner, Moishe (Alexander Gemignani), just as the Nazis lope into town.
Most of the Act I songs wouldn’t fly even in that venue. Though Stoller (yes, the one who worked with Lieber) and Butler have provided a handful of moderately catchy klezmer-styled tunes, which are given lively readings by the small orchestra conducted by Paul Gemignani, the lyrics are too often couplet-heavy clunkers that either skirt the surface or avoid genuine feeling altogether. “Remember Who You Are” — can we moan “prophetic”? — is a typical entry; the rest oscillate between diegetic blandness (decently but unremarkably choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler) and weak-kneed bathos bearing. As if realizing the futility of their pursuits, the performers move, speak, and sing as if awkwardly animated oil paintings, creating the vague illusion of energy without actually generating any. Alexander, allowed to wield his near-legit baritone, at least lets forth with some thrilling notes. No one else even does that much.
Again, everything changes in Act II. The Warsaw players fade deeper into Raisel’s memory, becoming more effective as figments than fact. Parker unleashes with illustrious care a coruscating, yet grounded, anger that instantly brands Red a key portion of a narrative in which she’d barely registered earlier. Resheff, too, shines as a girl too young to understand the implications of what’s happening around her, and projects wisdom and maturity well beyond her 10 years of age. Best of all is Murphy, who after a dour first hour recaptures every grain of her usual glittering star presence and then some, and demonstrates comprehensive command of the extremes her rangy character demands. She moves seamlessly back and forth between Raisel in her mid-80s to her mid 30s, and from the spitting-good-fun of the resilient and mocking “Ich, Uch, Feh” to the crippling regret of “Child of My Child” and the searing longing of “Selective Memory.”
That last song, by the way, is the finest new show tune of the season, blessed with a simple romantic melody and an even more elemental sentiment: Whatever events may fade from our minds, we somehow remember the people and things that matter most. Raisel, increasingly unable to discern details in her present life, is still held prisoner by the past she sees with crystalline clarity. Even so, it’s never too late to change and remind those of today — and tomorrow — what yesterday really meant. When The People in the Picture drives home that message post-intermission, it becomes the one thing its first act convinces you would be impossible: unforgettable.