Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
A late 1930s picture of a Bubbie's movie-making family of sorts comes to life as she relates their stories to her young granddaughter of loves found and lost, small triumphs and unspeakable tragedies, and a family no more except in the picture and in her otherwise failing memory. With the original writing team as partners, Guggenheim Entertainment and 3 Below Theaters & Lounge revive and revise the 2011 Roundabout Theatre premiere version of The People in the Picture and bring this new version to their intimate stage, allowing this family's and a lost generation's history and heritage to come to life once again through rousing music, bone-tickling humor, and stirring stories that should never be forgotten.
Susan Gundunas is worth the price of the ticket as she plays both the bent-over, foot-shuffling Bubbie in modern-day New York and the wise-cracking Yiddish stage-and-film star Raisel of 1935 Warsaw. Bubbie cannot remember what she did yesterday, but she can recall in minute detail the corny jokes about rabbis and Hitler; the scenes of her Yiddish Shakespeare plays where no one ever dies; and the names, faces, and endearing quirks of all her now lost friends and family. In the musical's rambunctious opening, "Bread and Theatre," her deeply rich voice leads with much resonance and rigor her old gang of fellow thespians to declare, "Without our bread, we'd be hungry ... Without theatre, we'd be dead." Even as reports of new pogroms and atrocities fill the air, Raisel dons the cloak of God and pronounces, "If you can make the people laugh, you'll rule the world."
The startling juxtaposition of Raisel's hearing increasingly bad news and the undertaking of her ventures to star in back-room-made films like "The Dancing Dybbuk" is related by Bubbie to her granddaughter Jenny (a delightfully precocious, lark-voiced Natalie Schroeder). Jenny diligently writes down every word and begins to seealong with her grandmotherthe people in the framed pictures on their home's walls come to life around them.
Two of them, Yossie Pinsker (Brian Watson) and Avram Krinsky (Jim Ambler), sing in strong voice and with hilarious antics "Remember Who You Are," going through a whole litany of Eastern European Jews from Goldwyn and Mayer to Gershwin and Berlin who have moved to the U.S. to become famous under new names. ("Even Rin-Tintinski is now Rin Tin Tin," one jokes.) As they end their crowd-pleasing duet with "then remember who we are," their wish seems to be pointed at the observing, modern-day Jenny, who continues to write in her journal every word and scene her grandmother relates.
Bubbie's daughter and Jenny's mother, Red Martin, carries on her mother's joke-writing skills, being now part of a team of scriptwriters for a late-night, TV show. Red is worried about the failing memory and increasing frailty of her mother who lives with her and Jenny, with Julia Wade in rough-edged vocals that could star her in a nightclub cabaret relating in "Juggling Act" her daily struggles of managing the dueling challenges of work and home. The tensions between her and her mother are seemingly constant, stoked by some past event that only comes to life as Bubbie's stories spill forth from the hanging frames on the walls (part of the striking and highly effective set design of Julie Engelbrecht). As Red tells her mother, "We've had more fights than the entire Middle East."
For two people who think they are so different, parallels between Red's and Raisel's lives are many, even given the horrible differences that the mother had to go through as she and all her friends are forced into the Warsaw Ghetto. Each lets the love of her life get away from her, with Chaim Bradovsky (F. James Raasch) and Marvin (Stephen Guggenheim) each pleading in fine, sparkling voices, "Say Yes" to their respective loves of the two time periods (with Marvin backed up by a hand-and-body grooving doo-wop group). The conflicts of a lifetime between mother and daughter come to a head as Bubbie fears she is about to be put into assisted living, with Susan Gundunas singing in a voice full of Bubbie's fury and frustration, "I came through hell for this." Julia Wade as Red answers with equal exasperation and defiance, "Yes, she survived but will I survive this?" as daughter/granddaughter Jenny joins in a spine-tingling trio of "For This" where all three generations find themselves in a full war of wills.
Shannon Guggenheim and Scott Evan Guggenheim co-direct flawlessly the swings between and the blending of the disparate time and place settings, often drawing audience chuckles in the way characters go in and out of posed pictures or as most actors switch as we watch from a role in one era to that of the other. The interactions of the past with the future generation and their involvement with the decisions and resolutions of current family issues is one of many examples of strong directorial and playwright partnering, in this case reiterating the point of the influence of past generations on the present one.
Shannon Guggenheim also choreographs the ensemble pieces, with ever a respectful and fun bow to the circle and line dances of Eastern European Jewsarms often raised slightly overhead, arms interlined, and heads swinging in slight dips left and right. Along with her design of scenes, Julie Engelbrecht has clothed those in Warsaw with scarves, hats, and outfits that paint beautiful and powerful pictures of a generation past and those in New York with the plaids, stripes, and loud colors of the 1970s. Derek Duarte's lighting design softens scenes of memories and spotlights in just the right ways moments of crude movie-making, hilarious script-writing, or joyous merriment (even when the last is clouded by threats of invading Nazis). Stephen Cahill completes the superb creative team with a sound design that helps bring both time periods and continents into immediate reality.
Ever present scattered around the stage and at times part of the main action are six musicians, directed by Tom Tomasello also on keyboard, who play almost as big a part as the actors in setting the scenes and telling the stories of these two eras. The Jewish soul almost lost but saved through courageous will is particularly captured by the clarinet playing of Asaf Ophir in the second act's "Entr'acte," joined by the violin's sighs of remembrance played by Kymber Gillen. The overall outstanding music direction of Stephen Guggenheim produces in all voices and instruments music that teases and thrills, haunts and cries, sizzles and soars.
An extra benefit to attending the first two weeks of this musical's run is to peruse the information-rich display filling the large lobby of 3 Below that is part of a rotating exhibit by CHAIM, the California Holocaust Awareness and Action Interaction Museum. Pictures, newspaper reprints, timelines, and extensive narratives provide rich historical background of the pre-war Warsaw Jewish community, the Warsaw Ghetto, the rise of Nazism and its impact on Polish Jews, and other relevant topics.
Perhaps no song so captures the themes of The People in the Picture than the opening and closing number of act two: "We Were There." In October, 1940, members of the Warsaw Ghetto bury in milk cans diaries, art pieces, and even (or maybe, especially) jokes so that "someday they will know that we were here ... and in the face of hell, we found a way to dignity," as the gathered sing in moving harmony. The epic-sized evening ends with the entire company joining a member of the next generation beyond the ones we have already met in asserting and remembering through a resounding finale, "We Were Here."
Guggenheim Entertainment, 3 Below Theatres & Lounge, Iris Rainer Dart, Mike Stoller, and Artie Butler are all to be commended for this reminder never to forget, always to remember, and forever to keep those who have died alive within us.
The People in the Picture, through May 13, 2018, at 3 Below Theatres & Lounge, 288 South Second Street, San Jose CA. Tickets are available online at https://3belowtheaters.com.