Review of the April 30 matinee performance. At Studio 54 on Broadway, New York City. 2 hours, 20 minutes, including an intermission. Starring Donna Murphy, Alexander Gemignani, Christopher Innvar, Nicole Parker, Rachel Resheff, Hal Robinson, Lewis J. Stadlen, Joyce Van Patten and Chip Zien. Book and lyrics by Iris Rainer Dart. Music by Mike Stoller and Artie Butler. Choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler. Direction by Leonard Foglia.
In the interest of complete honesty, there are three things that really push my emotional buttons: anything to do with grandmothers, a deathbed scene that has the full range of familial angst, anger and sorrow, and anything to do with the Holocaust. So it probably isn't hard to understand why I, unlike many critics, found The People in the Picture to be the almost perfect mix of the three all wrapped up in a musical theatre gift box. Is it schmaltzy? Oy vey, is it! Is it sentimental? To a fault. But it is also thought-provoking, sad, triumphant and even funny. And what is wrong with a well-crafted, if obvious, tale that leads to the inevitable sobs heard all around Studio 54 last Saturday? Does everything have to be so extreme - riotously funny/mildly profane or deeply, profoundly serious with historic repercussions? NO! There is room in the Broadway season for some pasty-faced Mormons, some unjustly incarcerated kids in the Jim Crow south and a lesson about knowing where you come from being just as important as where you are going through the filter of oppressed Jews in Warsaw during World War II.
The first act is the more flawed of the two. Book writer Iris Rainer Dart lets too many cats out of the bag too soon. Within minutes, she has revealed who the titular people are in the picture (at least the first one of two), introduced about a dozen or so characters, and the construct that we will be going back and forth between past and present as Bubbie desperately tries to get her family history recorded with the help of her completely smitten granddaughter, who drinks in every word. Time is running out, as Bubbie wrestles with her past, her grown daughter and memory loss; being sent to a nursing home is akin to going back to the ghetto. In some shows, it takes way too long to get into the story; here a little more time to savor the plot elements and less abruptly introduce a long-gone acting style might have made everything a little less obvious (plot-wise) and easier to understand (the Yiddish theatre conventions utilized) in the conceptual aspects of the show.
The People in the Picture: Alexander Gemignani,
Chip Zien, Joyce Van Patten, Louis J. Stadlen and
(seated, center) Donna Murphy
For example, we are so quickly whisked away into the world of the Yiddish theatre that we are given almost no time to digest that it is completely foreign to today's theatre, resulting in visual confusion and missed laughs. The deliciously bad puns and extremity of emotions meant to garner fast and easy laughs come across more like really really bad (really) stand-up comedy without the requisite drum roll rim shot that usually accompanies such schlock. It also robs us of the chance to appreciate the desperation of these actors to take their audiences as far from the reality of the Warsaw ghetto as they can. Yes, the jokes make you groan, and the "types" they play make your eyes roll - and they should, even back then. But in the context of the bigger picture, we should have been more moved than put off. Again, all of this happens in the first 15 minutes of the show, which includes a danced Prologue and a major production number.
Things calm down as the story - the modern part, anyway - gets going, and we start to see the dynamic between three generations of strong women. The oldest, Bubbie (Donna Murphy), knows her time is running out and stubbornly clings to life while she tries to get the family history down on record, hampered by a rapidly aging body and a mind that is like a steel trap for the details of long ago, but like a sieve for things of the day. Her daughter, Red (Nicole Parker) is as strong-willed as her mother, but wants nothing to do with her heritage, while Red's daughter/Bubbie's granddaughter (Rachel Reshoff) indulges Bubbie's every whim, so in love with her grandmother is she, while trying to keep her own mother from putting the eldest away for good. Then, as we start to get more of The Warsaw Gang, and see more of Bubbie's younger self, Raisel, the picture as it were is much clearer. And guess what? The extremes of the Yiddish theatre are easier to take and even poignant as they entertain.
Two Generations: Bubbie and Jenny, while Chaim looks on.
From left: Christopher Innvar, Donna Murphy and Rachel Resheff
And then, a small miracle happens: act two. It may just be one of the more perfect acts written for the musical theatre in recent years. Here, the story carries us away through all of the glorious ways a musical can. Andy Blankenbuehler's ethereal dances, evocative of Fiddler on the Roof, Zorba and his own work on In the Heights, move like silent whispers of memory as the dancers (superb, all) weave in and out of the scenes, there, but not really. The score, by rock and roll legend Mike Stoller and his protege, and big name in his own right, Artie Butler, subliminally weaves the traditional sounds of that long ago era and modern Broadway together in such a way that it makes the transitions all the smoother between time shifts, until, ultimately, past and present collide. Under the legendary baton of Paul Gemignani, the small orchestra sounds huge when it needs to, and small when it needs to be in the background. And I have to say, Iris Rainer Dart, who wrote the book and the novel Beaches, knows how to write one hell of a moving death scene. The final moments of the show are so moving and empowering at the same time, it is only afterwards that you can admit that you knew all along how it would end, but that knowledge somehow added to the moment instead of taking something away from it. In a perfect world, they could take the time to tweak act one to match act two - in retrospect, act one isn't that far from being all it could be. It just needs to slow down a hair. And I bet a second viewing would reveal many treasures in act one that to the unknowing eye whiz right by the first time.
In probably her best performance since Fosca in Passion, Donna Murphy again proves what an absolute gem she is, and what a true musical theatre star. Had she hit her peak (and I'm not implying she's past hers yet) in another era, she'd be a household name. The kind of celebrity that people all over the country would drive miles to see as she headlines the tour of her Broadway smash hit. Thank the theatrical heavens that she behaves like a true theatre star. She takes the work seriously, stretches herself, and never "calls it in." But her brilliance in this vehicle is simply jaw-dropping. Just to watch her transform, back and forth between 30-something actress Raisel and 70-something Bubbie, is a study in acting magic. Aided only by a scarf and easily changed costumes (excellently designed and implemented by designer Ann Hould-Ward), a slight change in pace and gait, and an almost invisibly changed posture, the transformation occurs in mere seconds. Once, the transformation goes back and forth over the space of one uttered sentence. Ms. Murphy is transcendent in a role that was perfectly matched to her considerable gifts. There are not many great actresses that can make you laugh and cry almost simultaneously, whose physicality is so engrossing and real that a stage fall is cause for a genuine gasp and a flash of concern (is she alright?) until you realize that she is acting so damned well. A demanding role, she must be able to do tough dramatic scenes, arguing and fighting for her life, be warm and almost cuddly as a cookie-scented grandma should be, and as grand and voracious about life as a young woman thrown unwillingly into an impossible situation can be. It is this very range that allows us to laugh with, be angered by, and ultimately cheer for the heroine that both Raisel and Bubbie are. It would be a shame if Ms. Murphy did not earn her third Tony for this breathtaking tour-de-force performance.
Her supporting cast is no bunch of slouches, either, including her youngest co-star, Rachel Resheff, who gives a grounded, sweet performance as the granddaughter, Jenny. It is clear that Miss Resheff is as smitten with her leading lady as her character is, and one senses that this child actress is soaking up everything she can from Ms. Murphy at every performance. In a season full of (THANK YOU GOD) child actors who are "real' and not annoying Annie clones, she has the most to work with and turns in a performance most adult actors only wish they could pull off. Your heart will break right along with hers in the final moments.
Two generations: Jenny and Red
Rachel Resheff and Nicole Parker
In a way, Nicole Parker has the most difficult role in the show. As Raisel's grown daughter, Red, she has to be strong enough to play well with Ms. Murphy. Her character has to be strong enough to stand up to and not be steamrolled over by her own mother. And she has the tricky task of being angry and hurtful to a warm adored-by-the-audience character, while not being so impossible that you can still sympathize with her. Then, to top it all off, you have to believe that she has the right to be angry and then believe that this previously hard as stone woman can forgive her mother for a past she had no control over. Well, Ms. Parker does just that. She is strong, yet vulnerable, scared, yet brave. And she has a lovely voice to add to the whole mix.
Raisel and Chaim dream of Hollywood
(Donna Murphy and Christopher Innvar)
The titular people in the picture are those friends from Bubbie's past, The Warsaw Gang (loosely based on a real troupe of actors who got their word out to Hollywood at the risk of their own lives). They come to life as they help Jenny get the history, and beckon Raisel to rejoin them in the afterlife. And what a fine bunch of ghosts they are: Alexander Gemignani radiates warmth and intrigue as a Jew with more than his share of secrets; Lewis J. Stadlen and Chip Zien are an old school comic team, a precursor to Abbott and Costello and even the Three Stooges. Both men are funny, understand the nuances of this kind of unmodern comedy, and make you like them as people. And there is Hal Robinson and Joyce Van Patten as the elder couple of the troupe, who give off such an incredible amount of nostalgia you'd think both really were actors born in the 19th century. Mr. Robinson gives off that grandfatherly air, even as he grouses and complains, while Ms. Van Patten is the very personification of actorly ego. Christopher Innvar rounds out the troupe as its leader and acting partner to Raisel. His character is an enigma, mainly because it is under-written (more for him in act one would solve two problems at once) and some of his motivations and actions are simply left hanging. Still, he, like the rest, do a fine job in making us care about them, what their place in history is, and for a craft no longer practiced.
Megan Reinking and Donna Murphy
In minor supporting roles, Megan Reinking and Paul Anthony Stewart do remarkable work in two short bursts as Jewish sympathizers. They figure prominently in the story, but to reveal anything about them would detract from the impact of the one story element that you'd probably not predict in the first 15 minutes of the show. And Louis Hobson, as one might suspect from his performance in next to normal, makes a decent, caring doctor. (I have to admit to giggling, the minute he came out and started talking... it was a "Psychopharmacologist and I" flashback!)
Unfortunately, this show opened in a particularly competitive season, where, in comparison, it might have come out better with the critics. Still, it provides a thoughtful, emotional and ultimately satisfying end to a chaotic season of extremes. And it gave us another brilliant performance by a true Broadway star. Brava, Donna Murphy! The show ends its limited run on June 19th. I strongly urge you not to miss this performance or this quiet little gem of a show.
(Photos by Joan Marcus)
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