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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Looking for a family-friendly theatre outing? Well, your search is over! How about a trip to the New Victory Theatre, where you can get your yearly dose of children's opera served with a healthy helping of the Holocaust as an appetizer?

Oh, not quite what you're searching for? Sorry, but Tony Kushner has never been to everyone's taste. That will likely remain the case with his bizarre new double bill: He may have written a new English adaptation of the children's opera Brundibar (music by Hans Krása, original libretto by Adolf Hoffmeister), but still manages to keep the focus primarily on himself.

The endlessly acclaimed Kushner, the playwright responsible for Angels in America and the more recent Caroline, or Change, ensures that you're kept well aware of his effusively lyrical and erudite gifts in the "curtain raiser" he's written for Brundibar, But the Giraffe. It's intended to acquaint us with Krása's miniature opera, which was famously presented by the children of the Terezín concentration camp in 1943 and 1944, but instead only dilutes Brundibar's potentially inspirational impact.

But the Giraffe presents an imagined story of how the Brundibar score was smuggled into Terezín, and thus how it gained its notoriety as a work of hope entrenched in a realm of despair. A young Jewish girl (Danielle Freid), we learn, must choose between taking the score and her cherished stuffed giraffe with her to the concentration camp, when her suitcase is not large enough to hold both. But she reexamines her selfish leanings after talking to her uncle Rudy (William Youmans), who wants her to smuggle in the score beneath the watchful eyes of her parents (Anjali Bhimani and Matt Farnsworth), grandparents (Angelina Réaux and Martin Vidnovic), and, oh yes, those nasty Nazis.

The family's prospective deaths hang silently over But the Giraffe, intruding only near the end when the family begin their flight from their comfortable Prague home. This isn't a cheery opening, but it could still suffice as a simple tale of selflessness were it not rendered smug and intractable by Kushner's parodistically abstruse dialogue. The girl's conversations with her grandparents turn up the words "interpose," "bereft," "prehensile," "anaesthetize," and - my personal favorite - "camelopardine," all utilized with no apparent eye toward irony.

Nor, it seems, the fact that a considerable portion of the audience is children, who don't deserve to be talked above any more than they deserve being condescended to. Kushner skillfully avoids the latter; one wishes he'd given some thought to the former.

This is especially unfortunate as Brundibar, written for children to both perform and watch, makes its points far more lucidly, entertainingly, and comprehensibly. Here, Kushner behaves admirably, working to serve the opera instead of himself. With gentle humor and the merest hint of a tragic edge, Kushner deftly details the story of a young boy and girl (Aaron Simon Gross and Devynn Pedell) who take on a villainous organ grinder Brundibar (Euan Morton, wearing a Hitler moustache) when he prevents them from singing on the street to earn enough money to buy milk for their ailing mother.

The tale, which begins deceptively funereally, might involve a talking sparrow, cat, and, dog (delightfully played by Bhimani, Réaux, and Geoff Hoyle), but ultimately proves a human tale about the power of communities to overwhelm tyranny and hatred. One can't quite comprehend the power it must have exerted over those in Terezín (and thankfully one doesn't have to), but it's a quick, clean piece bursting with the kind of whimsical and metaphoric fun that's usually best for educating children - and, yes, adults - without their realizing it.

To that end, the charming production design by Maurice Sendak and Kris Stone recalls both children's books and the more quietly oppressive paintings of Munch and Chagall, with no hint of incongruity. Director Tony Taccone and all the performers in both pieces keep the light and the dark precisely balanced within the text they've been given; the child performers (including the ensemble drawn from Rosie's Broadway Kids) are refreshingly uncloying and direct.

Kushner could learn something from them, at least as far as But the Giraffe is concerned: The piece unleashes such a starkly negative impact on the proceedings that even the less-than-brilliant but certainly beautiful Brundibar feels diminished. Under the circumstances, children and their parents may be forgiven for thinking that perhaps that little girl should have chosen the giraffe instead.

Through May 21
New Victory Theater, 209 West 42nd Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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