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Tony Kushner's adaptation of the famed Czech children's opera is admirable but not especially entertaining. logo
Euan Morton and company in Brundibar
(Photo © Kevin Berne)
Is there anything wrong with admiring a theatrical production because you so very much want to do so, even if you have to bend a few critical criteria to somewhere near the breaking point? I ask this question with all sincerity now that I've seen Brundibar, an adaptation by Tony Kushner of Adolf Hoffmeister's and Hans Krása's Czechoslovakian 1930s children's operetta, for which Maurice Sendak has designed sets awash in his characteristic bonhomie and menace. The piece has been programmed with But the Giraffe, a curtain-raiser that the always-engaged Kushner has come up with as a fanciful explanation for how Krása's score came to be smuggled into the concentration camp at Terezín.

Brundibar was reportedly performed 55 times at the Nazis' showcase compound by interned Jewish children, after it had already been presented elsewhere to some notice during the gathering storm. It's the heavily metaphorical tale of a brother and sister, Pepicek (Aaron Simon Gross) and Aninku (Devynn Pedell), defying an Adolph Hitleresque organ-grinder called Brundibar (Euan Morton) by singing songs in a marketplace in order to raise a few pennies to buy milk for their ailing mother. They eventually receive help not only from other children whom they encounter (played by members of Rosie O'Donnell's group Rosie's Broadway Kids) but also from a cat (Angelina Réaux), a dog (Geoff Hoyle), and a sparrow (Anjali Bhimani).

There's plenty to be said for an enterprise that alternates sentimentality and harshness, one that's an admonitory fairy tale about totalitarianism but also a story about sibling affection and children's camaraderie. There's much to respect in an allegory that dares to damn government authority in the face of horrifying retribution. Both Hoffmeister and Krása had to know what risks they were taking when they wrote about innocence vanquishing evil, although not forever: Though Brundibar is drummed out of town, he doesn't leave without issuing a chilling warning.

The major plus in Brundibar is the score, which is deliberately simple, tuneful, and includes a touching final anthem sung by all the children as well as by the sparrow, the dog, and the cat. Krása's melodies have a great deal of child-like charm and could be considered the aural equivalent of Sendak's always musical illustrations. What the score doesn't achieve is parity with Engelbert Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel, another beloved work in which a sister and brother encounter threatening forces.

One of the major drawbacks here is that the words to the songs are often unintelligible. Director Tony Taccone has gotten his young cast to move like little soldiers in a drill, but neither he nor musical director Greg Anthony have trained them to enunciate clearly. The result is that adults may have trouble understanding what's being sung, and children certainly will. I sat behind a family with many kids, none of whom seemed especially entertained by the proceedings -- not even when Brundibar was assailed by the dog and cat, moments that children might be expected to enjoy.

On balance, the more successful part of the 90-minutes-with intermission program is But the Giraffe -- which has replaced Comedy on the Bridge, another short Czech opera that was the curtain-raiser during the show's previous runs in Berkeley and New Haven. Here, Little Girl (Danielle Freid) is about to take an unspecified trip from her native Prague but can only carry one suitcase. Though she wants to pack her stuffed giraffe along with her clothes, her mother (Bhimani), father (Matt Farnsworth), grandmother (Réaux), and Uncle Rudy (William Youmans) insist she take the bulky Brundibar score. (Rudy is supposed to be Rudolph Freudenfeld, who conducted Brundibar at Terezín.) As Sendak's scenic Prague looms outside the Little Girl's bedroom window, there is suspense as to whether the child will ultimately choose the adored giraffe or come to a different decision about what's really important in life.

That Brundibar follows this piece goes some way toward tipping us off to its outcome, but Kushner nonetheless takes the opportunity to wrap a moral lesson in attractive literary fabric. The playwright's fans will instantly realize that But the Giraffe is a variation on Kushner's inspired Caroline, or Change. In both, a selfish child is put in a position where mature thinking is required and sacrifice for a larger cause is an issue. Both Giraffe and Freid have a strong emotional pull, one that unfortunately doesn't carry through to Brundibar.

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