January 27, 2024

Good and Bad Reminders of the Holocaust Are on Show in "Our Class" and "White Rose"

Today is International Holocaust Memorial Day, which was created to commemorate the six million Jews and others who were systematically slaughtered by the Nazis. But New York theater makers aren’t limiting their remembrances of those horrific events to a single day. For over a year now, stages here have been filled with one production after another recalling the horrors of that time and drawing cautionary parallels to our own time with its rising antisemitism and flirtations with fascism.

The shows have been large and small. Last season’s Leopoldstadt, Tom Stoppard’s semi-autobiographical drama about a wealthy Jewish family nearly annihilated by the Nazis, boasted a cast of 38 and won the Tony, Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk awards. 

Joshua Harmon’s similarly-themed Prayer for the French Republic, which tracks the experiences of a Jewish family faced with violent bigotry both during the Holocaust and in present-day France, had a great off-Broadway run in 2022 and moved to Broadway earlier this month with most of its original 11-member cast intact.  

And last fall, King of the Jews, Leslie Epstein’s moving adaptation of his 1979 novel about the Jewish leaders in a Polish ghetto forced to decide which of their brethren to send to the death camps, had a successful run downtown at the HERE Arts Center. 

Now not everything has worked. Neither Bess Wohl’s Camp Siegfried nor Rita Kalnejais’ This Beautiful Future, both of which centered around young Nazis falling in love, made much headway with critics or audiences.  

And the musical Harmony, the longtime dream project of Barry Manilow and his writing partner Bruce Sussman that focused on The Comedian Harmonists, a real-life sextet of Jewish and Gentile performers who were forced apart when Hitler came to power, picked up a slew of awards when it played downtown at the Museum of Jewish Heritage but failed to click on Broadway and is now scheduled to close at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Feb. 4 after just 90 or so performances. 

Yet, the shows keep coming and they keep finding different ways to tell stories about the horrors that happened. An all-new immersive production of Cabaret is coming in April and just this week, I saw two new Holocaust-themed shows: White Rose, a musical about the German college students who led a resistance movement against the Nazis; and Our Class, a Brechtian-style drama about how the bonds were savagely broken between Jews and Christians in one small Polish village. 

Although there have been other shows about The White Rose movement (click here to read a review of one of them) I didn’t know about the group until I read about it in Ian McEwan’s recent novel “Lessons.” But I was instantly fascinated by those young people who risked—and mainly lost—their lives to speak out against Hitler. So I was curious to see how the story of Hans and Sophie Scholl, the brother and sister who were the group’s leaders, would be brought to the stage. Alas, the answer to that is not well.

The creators and the producers of the musical which opened this week at Theatre Row all seem to be novices and their inexperience shows. Book writer and lyricist Brian Belding, whose Playbill bio describes him as a former high school history teacher, has clearly done his research but he hasn’t figured out how to pace a show, how to create characters with emotional depth or how to write lyrics that go beyond simply stating what’s happening. 

Meanwhile Natalie Brice’s music has no distinguishing personality.  A score doesn’t have to reflect the historical period it’s musicalizing but it should make you think that all the songs belong to the same world. This one just slides from one tune to another without rhythm or reason. The actors work hard and some are better than others but none of them get enough help from their director Will Nunziata. The Scholls deserve better.

It would have been interesting to see what Tadeusz Slobodzianek, the Polish author of Our Class, and his inventive director Igor Golyak might have done with the Scholls' story because they have turned their production, which is now playing in BAM’s Fishman Space, from what could have been a fairly predictable story into a powerful meditation on how people act when faced with making truly horrendous choices.

At the center of their tale are 10 people who take great pride in being members of the same class in their village school. Half of them are Jewish, half Catholic and although they’re aware of their differences, it doesn’t stop them from developing friendships and crushes across faith lines. Until the outside world intervenes. 

First the Russians occupy the town and then the Germans take over. Locals take sides that break down along ethnic lines and soon they are informing on one another and beating and raping and killing one another. 

The script, adapted into English by Norman Allen, follows these characters over seven decades from their grade school years into their days in nursing homes for the few who survive that long. And yet it manages to make us feel as though we know each of them as real people who are good in some moments, horrible in others and sometimes just trying to make peace with what’s been done to them and what they’ve done to others. 

Most of the action is portrayed in an expressionistic style on a nearly bare stage outfitted with ladders, trap doors and a fateful chalkboard. And Golyak sometimes uses video cameras in the way that Ivo van Hove does to create film-style close-ups of his actors, which can be effective but can also be distracting. However he also creates achingly beautiful stage images as when the actors draw simple faces on white balloons and then send them floating into the rafters to symbolize the deaths in a particularly horrific massacre.  

The cast made up of both fresh and familiar faces is uniformly excellent. But I couldn’t help focusing on Richard Topol. That’s in part because he’s older by several years than most of his castmates. But it’s also because this is the third time I’ve seen Topol appearing in one of these recent Holocaust plays. 

He has a full career doing other things as well, but I suspect that Topol, who traces his family roots back to shtetls in Eastern Europe (click here to hear more about that) keeps taking these parts because he truly believes—as we all should—that unless we acknowledge such history, we are in dire danger of repeating it.

January 20, 2024

A Belated—But Upbeat—Spring Preview

Previews are all about the promise of what’s to come so I suppose it’s no surprise that the last time I posted a preview list of the shows I was excited about seeing in an upcoming season was on Jan 11, 2020, nine weeks before the pandemic shutdown theaters here in the city and across the country. 

I somehow managed to see most of the shows on that list including Katori Hall’s The Hot Wing King, which won 2021's Pulitzer Prize for Drama; Endlings, a lovely meditation on aging by Celine Song, whose first feature film “Past Lives” may be an Oscar contender this year; and the wonderful revival of Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, with most of the cast from its original 1997 off-Broadway production.

Theaters opened backed up in the fall of 2021 and I cautiously went back to seeing the new shows. But my enthusiasm fluctuated up and down: I saw some great stuff (Sanaz Toossi’s English, the 2022 Pulitzer winner; Samuel D. Hunter’s A Case for the Existence of God) but I often had to push myself out of the house to see it. 

I’ve also done a lot of mourning over the past four years: friends lost to Covid like the actress and writer Patti Bosworth; friends lost to old age like my dear dear friend Seymour Red Press, the contractor for some 100 Broadway musicals who left us at 98; iconic figures like Stephen Sondheim, 91, and Sheldon Harnick, 99; and most painfully for me the unexpected loss of my beloved sister and life-long theater companion Joanne. 

So that is why I’m so happy to finally be able to share this preview list of spring shows that I’m truly looking forward to seeing over the next few months. And there’s a lot to get worked up about. Nineteen shows will open on Broadway alone, and at least three—Days of Wine and Roses, Hell’s Kitchen and The Notebook—will be directed by Michael Greif, the mastermind behind such musical masterworks as Rent, Next to Normal and Dear Evan Hansen.

And a bunch of the shows that aren’t being done by Greif are being helmed by such top-notch female directors as Tina Landau, Lila Neugebauer, Leigh Silverman and Jessica StoneMeanwhile, many of the musicals have been written by newcomers who are bringing a today sound to the traditional musical and they’re being led by big movie-star names that may bring in new audiences too. 

Also, to my great delight, several of the new shows are taking on big state-of-the-world subjects like privacy, free speech and class. As I said, there’s a lot to be excited about. Here are just four shows that have me really jazzed: 

THE ALLY Given the recent forced resignations of the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, it’s hard to think of a more up-to-the-moment issue than the one at the center of Itamar Moses’ latest work about a college professor who gets entangled in conflicting agendas after he signs a social justice petition. It’s scheduled to open at the Public Theater on Feb. 27 with Josh Radnor as the prof.

THE CONNECTOR  This new Jason Robert Brown musical is inspired by the case of the disgraced journalist Stephen Glass and focuses on a young reporter who is willing to do anything to make a name for himself and the young female editor who becomes suspicious of his actions. The book is by Jonathan Marc Sherman, the direction by Daisy Prince and the show, which is scheduled to open at MCC on Feb. 6, will bring Scott Bakula back to the New York stage for the first time in 35 years.

MOTHER PLAY I’m always eager to see anything by the great Paula Vogel, but this new work about a domineering mother and her two near-adult children in the 1960s also comes with the killer cast of Jessica Lange, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Jim Parsons. And when it opens at the Hayes Theater on April 25, it will also mark the first time that a play by the 72-year-old Pulitzer winner will make its world debut on Broadway. 

THE OUTSIDERS. Generations of teens have embraced this story about the conflict between two high school gangs—the working-class Greasers and the more privileged Socs—that S.E. Hinton published in 1967 when she herself was just 18. In 1983, Francis Ford Coppola turned her novel into a film that has become a cult classic and now playwright Adam Rapp has written the book for a musical that is scheduled to open at the Jacobs Theatre on April 11 with a cast of fresh faces and a score by Jamestown Revival, a folk-rock duo who specialize in easy-on-the-ear melodies, all of which make me really hopeful about the future of Broadway.