New York City Theater
"To Paint the Earth"
(New York Musical Theatre Festival), 37 Arts Theatre
It seems sacrilegious to look critically at the heroes of the Warsaw ghetto. One must certainly pay tribute to those Jews who fought and died in the 1943 uprising. In a memorable battle with the Nazis, they met overwhelming odds—a doomed battle in which they nonetheless changed the face of history.
But the musical which grew out of that historic event is another matter—and indeed warrants criticism. “To Paint the Earth” is a worthy, serious attempt which has not yet come together. Daniel Frederick Levin, who wrote the book and lyrics, and Jonathan Portera, who composed the music, have taken on a grand, but—at this point--overwhelming challenge.
It is a muddy, confused story which deals with three ghetto families—as they respond to the tightening noose of the Nazi regime. Granted that small, sharp, affecting moments surface—as when lovers connect or a young girl sells her body or the underground organizers plan their strategy or an old rabbi stubbornly turns from the truth.
But too often one cannot make sense of the chaotic scene. Difficulties are compounded because lyrics (often assigned to carry the story) do not come across clearly, and the music, though operatic in style, tends to be repetitious and not absorbing.
Yet, under Michael Bush’s skillful direction, the large cast works as an ensemble, and there are appealing performances within the cast. Jane Pfitsch is a spirited young revolutionary, Scott Richard Foster is likeable as her lover, and Robin Skye is a strong presence as her mother.
All told, “To Paint the Earth” could use further time on the drawing board. It is a story which deserves to be told to each new generation of theatergoers—and told in the clearest and most effective way possible.
Sept. 25, 2008