Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The People in the Picture: The Wrong Music and Messy Storytelling Mar a Potentially Moving Story

A tender moment from 'The People in the Picture'

Here’s a quick quiz:

Say you were putting together a musical about a Yiddish theater troupe in 1930s Poland.  In order to capture the flavor of the times, you would:

A.  Use authentic period Yiddish music.
B. Hire a klezmer band to write and perform original pieces.
C. Turn the job over to the guy who wrote “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,”and “Love Potion #9.”  

If you answered C, congratulations!  You have the honor of knowing you are in synch with the folks behind The People in the Picture, an earnest if klutzy take on the recollections of a Jewish woman haunted forever by memories of a life upturned by the rise of Naziism.   

Don’t get me wrong.  I am a big fan of Mike Stoller’s rock era songs, written with his partner Jerry Leiber—the soundtrack of my youth.  Mr. Stoller is responsible for half of the music in the show.  The rest of the songs were written by Artie Butler, the music arranger for Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright,” among other hits.  I have no doubt that both are talented songwriters, but, please, not for this show, and, do pardon me if I say “oy vey!”  

The People in the Picture stars Donna Murphy (undoubtedly the first name that pops into your head when you think of a Yiddishe mama), who jumps back and forth in time portraying an elderly bubbe in 1970s New York and her younger self in Warsaw during the Nazi years.  Remember, though, this is Donna Murphy we’re talking about here; to her credit, the two-time Tony Award winner gives it her all against the ineffective music and messy book and lyrics by novelist Iris Rainer Dart, best known as the author of Beaches.

The premise of the show is that a grandmother, Bubbe Raisel, is passing on the story of her life to her granddaughter.  As she speaks, her earlier years as a star of Yiddish theater unfold on the stage.  Ms. Murphy does a fine job of moving between the two roles so that the transitions are clear.  But the potentially compelling storyline, which might have worked with more appropriate music, is further lost when the framing device encompasses a separate plot about the stormy relationship between Raisel and her daughter. 

The single truly authentic moment in the show occurs when the songwriters step aside, and Ms. Murphy sings a tender and popular Yiddish children’s song (Oyfen Pripitchik, written in the 19th century by Mark Warshavsky) a tune you might recognize from its use in the movie Schindler’s List.  I could hear members of the audience, who undoubtedly remembered the song from their own childhoods, quietly singing along.

Of the rest of the performers, I would like to tip my hat to some old favorites:  Chip Zien, Lewis J. Stadlen, and Joyce Van Patten as members of Raisel’s Polish acting company.  Victims of the Holocaust, their spirits surround Raisel in her old age and offer peace and comfort against a troubled heart. 

These few effective elements suggest lost possibilities and make one wish for a better showcase for this story.  As it stands, the People in the Picture fades quickly from memory—the exact opposite of what Raisel would want to see happen.

Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.

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