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Signs of Life

This musical about life during the Holocaust never finds a consistent tone. logo
Wilson Bridges, Patricia Noonan and Jason Collins
in Signs of Life
(© Joan Marcus)
Is there such a thing as a good musical set during the Holocaust? It's a daunting enough challenge to write an effective straight drama that takes place in the ghettos and camps of the Shoah. How does one write such a piece and include show tunes? The creators of Signs of Life, now being presented by Amas at The Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater at the West Side YMCA, have not fully solved this dilemma.

Set in Terezin, a Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, the two-and-a-half-hour work offers some stirring moments, starting late in its first half. But most of the production is too busy struggling for a consistent tone and identity.

The structure of Peter Ullian's book -- full of rushed scenes and non-integrated subplots -- is that of a light comedy. One moment the show seems to be pitching itself as an educational piece, teaching younger non-Jewish audiences rudimentary lessons about Passover meals and prayers for the dead. The next moment, it is overlapping images of Third Reich oppression with occasional anachronisms and the sophomoric sex jokes of a clumsy love-struck activist (played by Wilson Bridges).

The score, by Len Schiff and Joel Derfner, is yet one more knock-off of Les Misérables, full of power ballads and anthems, all pleasantly composed but mostly forgettable. Two memorable exceptions are sung by a supporting character named Berta (Erika Amato), a Jewish wife who has been cast off by her Nazi husband. "Home Again Soon" is a genuinely moving number about a group of Polish children under her charge who are being shipped to Auschwitz for the second time. And in "I Will Forget," Berta challenges us with her own, unique plan for survival in the war's aftermath. Amato slightly overplays at first but eventually settles into her character with quiet dignity. The closing number, "Find a Way to Live," is a beautifully arranged piece sung by the company in a choral style that's considerably less stereotypical than the rest of the score.

Director Jeremy Dobrish is not successful in bringing much dimension to the show, although he has solicited some good performances. Jason Collins is strong as a hedonist from Berlin's cabaret scene who must choose between survival and heroism, while Stuart Zagnit infuses the role of a Jewish village elder with heart and nuance. Unfortunately, Patricia Noonan, whose young art student, Lorelei, leads the action of the story, is not as compelling. For starters, she shows little chemistry with Bridges, dulling the impact of a pivotal romance in the narrative. And it's never believable that she's experiencing the horrors that Lorelei faces.

Alexis Distler's set design, consisting mostly of a wall of suitcases that are punctuated by Michael Gottlieb's lighting, works well, particularly in a scene in which members of the Terezin community are trying to conceal paintings and sketches that show the horrific conditions under Nazi rule. In one of the production's gorgeous touches, much of the surviving visual art, which figures so prominently in the plot, is projected on the back wall of the set throughout the evening. There is some powerful drama in those sketches and paintings. It's unfortunate that the creators of this musical didn't trust it enough.

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