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.

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