theater (reviews)

review: the people in the picture

The People in the Picture

Book and lyrics by Iris Rainer Dart
Score by Mike Stoller and Artie Butler
Directed by Leonard Foglia 
Featuring Donna Murphy, Nicole Parker, Rachel Resheff
Roundabout Theatre Company, Studio 54, 54 West 54th Street
production web site: http://tinyurl.com/3valgls

April 28, 2011 — ongoing

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
May 27, 2011

  • “Most of the time the past seems to be all I can remember.” (Bubbie)

Megan Reinking and Donna Murphy. Image by Joan Marcus.

Family stories, humor in the face of adversity, intergenerational story telling.  Passing on of a legacy (finally, at long last) of truth. Remembering.  Forgiveness.  Grandmother survives the Holocaust with humor and inventiveness, departs Europe for America to begin life anew when the war ends, and a third generation, another daughter, asks for the story of Bubbie’s past and “the people in the picture”.  A conventional set up yields a few sweet musical moments within a plot quite literally pinned down by a weighty framing set device and some stilted plotting choices.  In the end the real reason to visit Studio 54 for this adventure is the luminous performance of Donna Murphy as a young mother 1935-1946 and a grandmother in 1977.

Raisel (Donna Murphy) was a member of a Polish theatre troupe, gets pregnant by a fellow actor who escapes the country before the Nazis assume complete control, marries a gay fellow actor who loves her, and enlists the assistance of a gentile German nanny Dobrisch (Megan Reinking) to care for her child Red (Nicole Parker as an adult, Andie Mechanic as a child) until the end of the War.  With breaks for dance numbers, flashing backwards and forwards in time, we learn of people who make do, who laugh through it all, who endure.  Raisel as the grandmother Bubbie is the last surviving member of the troupe members who visit her storytelling sessions with granddaughter Jenny (Rachel Resheff) to fill in blanks, provide backup in songs (audible and visible only to Raisel/Bubbie).  There are jokes and dancing aplenty that play fine in memory sequences while Bubbie is talking to Jenny, but play like “Springtime for Hitler” when the dancing chorus comes out when we’re supposed to be back in the ghetto with starving Raisel.  Troupe gag duo Yossie Pinsker (Chip Zien) and Avram Krinsky (Lewis J. Stadlen) deliver a “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” treatment to “Remember Who You Are” as a call to remembrance, to naming the past and building the future, to those who travel off to new lives.  We are not surprised when this tune is reprised at the end of the show by Bubbie — and also not surprised when the power of that simple call back is weakened by the big song and dance number finale “We Were Here” that seems redundant and misplaced.

A few beautiful musical moments rise above the top-heavy set design Riccardo Hermandez) and challenging sound system at Studio 54 (murky and tinny at once).  “Matryoshka” works the metaphor of secrets and mothers using a gift of embedded Russian dolls — first as a duet between Bubbie and Jenny, then a reprised solo by Red.  “For This” is another three generational ballad sweetly rendered and the ballad “Child of My Child” presents grandparental sweet observations.  Murphy morphs throughout the show, with few moments offstage, from grandmother to young mother, effortlessly, with a gentle removal of a headscarf or other small costume detail.  A masterclass.

© Martha Wade Steketee (May 30, 2011)

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