It is said that true artists can see beauty where none exists. In the Nazi camp of Theresienstadt, artists were forced to see beauty when none existed. That is thrust the emotionally rich new musical, Signs of Life which opened this week the Biograph Theatre. Here, the musical theatre artform is elevated to a level which it hasn’t been in a very long time, as history and theatre merge to educate and pay respect to those who lived and died in a horrific period of a time, not so long ago.
The entire musical takes place within the confines of what was the Czech “ghetto” of Terezin, where Hitler ordered the artistic, higher educated and socially visible Jews to be held. Though this was not built as a death camp, more than 33,000 died in Terezin of rampant disease due to the horrific overcrowding, while others were shot on site for “misbehavior”. Make no mistake, though not an extermination camp, per se, Terezin was just one short train ride away from Auschwitz, and that train arrived weekly to pick up the listed “residents”.
Signs of Life tells the story of a time when the Terezin was to be inspected by the Red Cross. Hitler ordered the “beautification” of the camp to dissuade the inspectors from discovering the truth. Thus, the artistic residents of Terezin became part of the Hitler propaganda machine, or so that was the plan. The conflict from the musical comes from the notion that an artists’ work is about the truth of what that artist sees and interprets. That is the case whether the artist is a painter, musician or actor. Propaganda runs inherently against that notion. But when faced with either obeying or being killed, the characters of Signs of Life go through a life journey no one in this generation could possibly fathom.
Lisa Portes smartly directs Peter Ullian’s book and has brought together one of the most coherent and talented casts seen in a very long time. Though this is a ensemble piece, Lara Flip’s work here is a simply brilliant and her voice has only gotten richer and stronger since I first saw her as Christine in “Phantom”. Ms. Filip is one of our finest musical theatre actors and this is a role she needs to recreate wherever the show heads next. In fact all the actors delve into places many would not have the pension or talent to go to. This is especially true of James Rank (Commandant Rahm) and Doug Pawlik (Officer Heindel) who play Nazi Guards and who must, as actors, find their own truth in playing the wretched. Both Rank (from Superman to Nazi; now that’s an actor’s’ life) and Pawlik, though inherently unlikeable, are pitch perfect in these roles.
Jason Collins’ Kurt, gets to take the biggest journey of self discovery and his final solo “Too Make A Plan” is riveting. So too are Megan Long and Matt Edmonds who prove that love can happen in the most unusual of places.
Joel Derfner has composed a melodic and character driven piece which is sometimes impeded by Len Schiff’s often simplistic lyrics. Music supervisor Paul Bogaev has certainly brought his expert ear to Signs of Life, which can be heard through Mike Pettry’s spot on musical direction.
Brian Sidney Bembridge set and lighting adds to the gritty nature of the work and Anna Henson’s projections of the actual artwork created by “residents” will leave you chilled.
As a new musical, there is still some work to be done. Some of the songs tend to take us out of moment and could be better said with just dialogue while one song, “Good”, an eleven o’clock number song by Officer Heindel, is theatrically misplaced. At a conference I attended last month Stephen Schwartz stated that because theatre songs exist at a certain time with the play, there has to be a reason for that song happening at the time it does, and if not, it needs to be removed. There is no reason for “Good” to exist the context it does.
There is another thought I had during and after the performance; and that is to have the entire piece done as a sung through musical (Evita, Les Mis, etc). It is not often you find material that lends itself to that type of treatment, but Signs of Life is an operatic piece by its very nature, and with Joel Derfner’s talent as a composer, it would be an interesting way to take this work.
What Signs of Life proves is that there are still people who are creating original an important works. This is a piece that must been seen and it must be recognized. It has been almost fifty years since Cabaret bowed on Broadway and these two pieces can almost stand as bookends in historical musical theatre relevancy. It is a heartfelt testament to those who perished and those who survived.
SIGNS OF LIFE, A Tale of Terezin, runs through October 27, 2013 at at the Zacek McVay Theater at Victory Gardens Theater (2433 N Lincoln Ave). Tickets range from $45-$65. Discounted tickets are available for seniors ($25), students ($20) and survivors ($20). Individual tickets are available now by calling the Victory Gardens Theater box office at 773.871.3000 or online at www.victorygardens.org. Tickets are available for groups of 10 or more by calling Victory Gardens Theater Group Sales at 773.328.2136. For more information, visit www.signsoflifethemusical.com or www.victorygardens.org. For calendar informaiton please visit www.TheatreInChicago.com