Amas Musical Theatre has gone out on a long, two and a half hour limb in association with Snap-Two Productions in presenting this must-be-told, fascinating and least known story to come out of the Holocaust. The true story of the Czech ghetto Terezin, renamed by Hitler -Theresienstadt – in his bid to fool the world and to hide the truth about what he was actually doing to the Jews, using them as props to feed his propaganda machine.
Not only did the Nazi’s want to exterminate the Jewish race but they had the audacity to set up a “City for Jews” disguising the facts with a façade of beautification to fool the Red Cross inspectors – populating the city with artists, writers, musicians and scholars forced into lying – the alternative: being sent to Auschwitz. Trying to impress the outside world with how well they were treating the Jews under their control. Pretending that hell was indeed a paradise for them. Signs of Life is a story of coping, surviving and ultimate bravery.
It is a difficult story to set to music without becoming maudlin or trite. But it must be passionate. Unfortunately the music by Joel Derfner rarely soars, becoming hypnotic when it should be haunting (with the exception of “Home Again Soon”). The lyrics by Len Schiff range from the expositional to the poetic to the intellectual which carry out the themes set up by book writer Peter Ullian. Although interesting, I felt a strong scholarly bent where more heartfelt emotions should be.
The cast does as well as can be expected under the static direction of Jeremy Dobrish. The heroine of the piece, artist Lorelei Schumann (Patricia Noonan – who has some of the same wonderful qualities of Sutton Foster) is torn between surviving and wanting to get the truth out by rendering pictures that vividly portray what life is really like in the ghetto – and attempting to smuggle them out. Her grandfather Jacob (Stuart Zagnit) the owner of an art gallery where Berta (an exceptional Erika Amato) shops to fill her home with expensive artwork to impress and then finds herself out on the street when the Nazi’s arrive – dumped by her German husband, finds solace in the bed of the cabaret performer – Kurt Gerard (Jason Collins). The young Wolfie Schumann (Gabe Green) gives a very nice portrayal of a boy set down in a world that he doesn’t understand. Wilson Bridges, as Simon Muller, is the political activist who falls in love with Lorelei. He is excellent in spirit and voice despite the fact that his character can become annoying at times. As the two Nazi’s, Kurt Zischke and Allen E. Read are rightfully despicable. And then there is the flamboyantly gay Jonas (Nic Cory) who goes over the top which only makes it all the more difficult to accept him as the other characters he portrays.
In the lobby there is an exhibition of drawings salvaged from Terezin. They are incredibly moving. I wish I could say the same for Signs of Life. At the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theatre 5 West 63rd Street through March 21st.
NOTE: There are scheduled post performance talkbacks with Terezin survivors – Edith Eger, Edgar Krasa, Gisela Adamski, Anita Schorr, Sol Rosenkrantz and John Freund. Others scheduled to appear are Robert Fischl, Barbara Siesel, Philip Silver, Stephan Herz and Fred Terna. www.amasmusical.org
Photo: Joan Marcus