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The People in the Picture

Donna Murphy gives a miraculous performance in the Roundabout Theatre Company's heart-stopping new musical.

Donna Murphy and Christopher Innvar
in The People in the Picture
(© Joan Marcus)
Other than the creation of the State of Israel, the greatest and most profound reaction to The Holocaust has been the extraordinary outpouring of art that has attempted to come to terms with this horrible event, from The Diary of Anne Frank to Cabaret to Schindler's List. The most recent attempt is Iris Rainer Dart's, Mike Stoller's and Artie Butler's heart-stopping new musical, The People in the Picture, now being presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54. It asks us to take a hard look at the suffering and the loss that resulted from this tragedy -- and it moves us deeply in the process.

The people in this picture are "The Warsaw Gang," a ragtag troupe of actors barely surviving, but finding solace -- and a few zlotys-- in making life a little less unbearable for their fellow Jews amidst the pogroms and poverty of Poland in the 1930s. Their story is told in flashback as troupe leader Raisel (Donna Murphy), nearing the end of her life, shares her life's journey with her granddaughter, Jennie (Rachel Resheff).

In her memories, The Warsaw Gang literally comes alive on stage in all its glory and ultimate tragedy. And even though we know from the start that Raisel survived the Holocaust, it's only at the play's climax that we learn the terrible toll it took on her and Red (Nicole Parker), her unhappy daughter.

The triumph of The People in the Picture is that the show insists upon -- and earns -- heroic stature for even small gestures of humanity. A man loses his life over bringing a doll to a little girl. Another man is knifed to death because he cannot ultimately joke his way out of the anti-Semitism of bullies. One by one the good and noble people we have come to admire and love are murdered, and yet the others do not cut and run. They fight the only way they know how -- with their art.

The show is directed by Leonard Foglia with intensity coupled with an underlying playfulness that creates just the right tone, and choreographed with dynamic fluidity by the gifted Andy Blankenbuehler. The set design, by Riccardo Hernandez, is powerfully realized; while the lighting design by James F. Ingalls inevitably, but subtly, directs our gaze wherever it needs to be. Both the orchestrations (by Michael Starobin) and the sound design (by Dan Moses Schreier) are exquisite in the way they do not call attention to themselves but, rather, enhance the story.

Murphy miraculously morphs back and forth between womanhood and old age; Parker gives a powerful, if understated performance; and Resheff is exceptional. They are surrounded by a stunning cast of musical theater performers -- including Alexander Gemignani, Chip Zien, Christopher Innvar, and Lewis J.Stadlen -- all of whom imbue their characters with charm, dignity, and style

As The People in the Picture aptly displays, talent is sometimes all artists have left -- and talent is very much on display in this taut, penetrating show.