Posted by David
I recently attended a performance of the new musical Signs of Life written by Peter Ullian with lyrics by Len Schiff and music by Joel Derfner.
The production opened Thursday at The Marjorie S. Dean Little Theater at the West Side Y. The musical is based on true events surrounding the infamous WWII Theresienstadt concentration camp in what was then Czechoslovakia.
The story centers on the Schumann family: Prague University student Lorelei (Patricia Noonan), her young brother Wolfie (Gabe Green), and her grandfather Jacob (Stuart Zagnit). In their genial orbit are her best gay friend and fellow student Jonas (Nic Cory), anti-fascist agitator Simon (Wilson Bridges), popular cabaret singer Kurt (Jason Collins), and rich housewife Berta (Erika Amato). All too soon, their idyllic world is invaded by the presence of two Nazi officers: Commandant Raum (Kurt Zischke) and Officer Heindel (Allen E. Read).
Overall the cast created engaging performances, with some standout work by Bridges and Read. The vocal talents of the cast were equally strong. Noonan and Amato in particular provided beautiful lyrical moments, with Amato shining in the heart-wrenching "Home Again Soon." Interestingly enough, Read also provides one of the more striking musical moments of the evening with his song "Good," in which the Nazi offers a heartfelt explanation of his reverence for the "final solution."
Kudos must also go to the design team. The set striking design by Alexis Distler, consisting mostly of white-washed suitcases that doubled as a screen for projections (videos designed by Chris Kateff) during key moments of the play, was extremely effective and inventive. Michael Gottlieb's lighting design worked hard to do a great deal with limited space and resources, and Jennifer Caprio's costumes aided in evoking Europe in the 1940's, as did Michael Eisenberg's sound design.
Director Jeremy Dobrish, former artistic director of the adobe theatre company, kept the action moving and created a unified aesthetic throughout the piece. Mike Pettry's musical direction of the Ullian/Derfner score was also effective.
The biggest challenge with a musical, or any work of theater, that strives to encompass a large swath of history is how to compress the action without shortchanging some elements in exchange for others. Signs of Life takes on this task with mixed results. Certainly key moments were handled powerfully and the narrative drew you in to the stories of the characters, however it sometimes seemed that characters slid into two-dimensionality in order to advance certain plot points while other moments were given dramatic short-hand in order to propel the story forward.
In addition, while the powerful musical numbers noted earlier, as well as songs such as "By Your Side," "City for the Jews" and "I Will Forget", served the story well, the similarity of many other numbers blurred them together to some extent. This may have been a symptom of composer Derfner's effort to create a continuity in the score with his use of rhythms and melodies.
Regardless, this new work shows great promise and the talents of the creative team on display are extensive. The production runs through March 21. Tickets can be purchased by calling (212) 352-3101 or by clicking here.