New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

"Signs of Life"
Little Theater, West Side Y, Manhattan

One of the most heartening aspects of the recent production of “Signs of Life” was its young audiences. On the morning we attended, students (mostly black, with a sprinkling, we believe, of Latino and Asian, students) filled the theater. Classes had arrived from two Manhattan schools—the all-girls’ St. Michael’s Catholic Academy and PM 34 Middle School (boys and girls).

The show in question, held at the West Side YMCA in Manhattan, was a new musical depicting the horrors of Terezin (renamed Theresienstadt by the Nazis). It was inspired by a visit producer Virginia S. Criste had made to Terezin, where her grandparents had spent their last days. With that memory in mind, she forged ahead with plans for a musical, commissioning composer Joel Derfner, lyricist Len Schiff and librettist Peter Ullian, with Jeremy Dobrish to direct.

As to the finished product, the young viewers were clearly affected by the proceedings on stage, gasping when the brutal Nazis treated the Jews badly, and cheering when the Jews showed courage and cunning. How much this really meant to the young audience, we cannot say. Since they probably view the Holocaust as ancient history (much as we view our own Civil War), were they truly affected? (They are studying the Holocaust in class, we were told.) Or was it more like a cops-and-robbers, good-guys-versus-bad-guys show? Alas, we could not stay for the talk-back (since we were rushing to another show), and we’ll never know.

For the show itself, titled “Signs of Life,” there is good news and bad news. On the positive side, the work is clear, simplistic, with sharply-defined villains and victims. The message comes through clearly and is clearly accessible to young audiences. The music is pleasant, the story is moving, and the performances are competent.

Actually based on a true story, “Signs of Life” follows the efforts of one young artist. While she paints pretty pictures for the Nazis’ edification, she secretly sketches the real conditions in the camp. As we all have learned by now, the Czech camp had been set up by the Nazis to convince the world that they were treating Jews decently. Calling it “a city for the Jews,” Hitler had proceeded to fill the camp with noted artists, composers, scientists and scholars from all over Europe. Though the Jewish prisoners did, in fact, make a kind of cultural life for themselves, conditions were horrendous---with cruelty, starvation, random killings, and ultimate shipments of prisoners “to the East” (i.e., Auschwitz).

The story of this musical revolves around the young girl’s efforts to get her pictures to the right authorities. The Nazis are preparing for a Red Cross visit, and, in that context, create a charade for that brief visit. Fake boutiques are created around the “village square,” while children play ball, women knit, the men smoke and try on new shoes. Nothing could be further from the truth. But the Red Cross visitor (in this musical, as in real life) is completely deceived.

The bad news about this musical is its very simplicity. What an opportunity this might have been for more subtle characterization and more emotional impact! We cannot help but compare “Signs of Life” to a play offered off-Broadway last spring, called “Way to Heaven.” Though “Signs of Life” claims to be the first such effort to lay bare the story of Terezin, it is not quite true. The first musical, yes, but not the first dramatic look at Terezin. “Way to Heaven” was truly devastating, but “Signs of Life”—music and all—is merely disturbing.

Nevertheless, one is reminded once again of the Terezin story, and that is good. Statistics have indicated that of some 144,000 Jews sent to the camp, about 33,000 died there and 88,000 were deported to their deaths in Auschwitz and other camps. At war’s end, about 17,000 inmates survived. And of the 15,000 children living in the “children’s home” within the camp, only 93 survived.

As we all know, the Holocaust tale must be told to each generation and certainly to young people of all ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds. And bringing “Signs of Life” to New York City children is indeed a worthy project.

-- Irene Backalenick
Feb. 26, 2010

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