The words “Holocaust musical” do not encourage a particularly warm or enthusiastic response, especially when paired with this additional phrase: “written by the author of Beaches.” And while the former is probably an inaccurate description of The People in the Picture, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s new production starring Donna Murphy, the sentiment is the same: the musical is dreadful.
The show centers around Raisel, played by Murphy, who in late ’70s New York is an elderly Yiddish bubbie with an unfortunately unfunny comedy-writer daughter named Red and a precocious granddaughter named Jenny. It’s to Jenny that Raisel recounts the stories of her early adulthood — she was an actress in the Yiddish theatre in Warsaw, Poland just before the war, a scene that comes alive within the walls of the New York apartment shared by the three generations of women. The ghosts of Raisel’s colleagues, played by real-life veterans such as Joyce Van Patten and Chip Zien, follow Raisel (and, for some reason, Jenny) acting out those Warsaw adventures to impart the Yiddish traditions onto the young girl.
There’s a complicated framing device at work here, one that would be better suited for a novel than for a play. Raisel jumps back and forth in time within the same scene, an action that presents a major issue, and one that is hardly resolved by having Murphy, in old-lady make-up and gray wig, cover her head with a scarf when required to portray her character’s younger self. The Playbill lists Murphy as playing two characters (Bubbie and Raisel), which seems like a cop-out; it’s almost as infuriating as the fact that “Bubbie” has a thick Yiddish accent in the “present” scenes whereas Raisel does not.
But the remarkably underrated Murphy manages to shine despite the material and direction; she completely melts into her character(s), seamlessly transitioning from the meek and frail Raisel into the vivacious Raisel. The early scenes features Raisel performing from her repertoire in the Warsaw theatre, playing characters ranging from a dancing dybbuk to — seriously — God Himself. Religion, however, takes a backseat to the play’s generalized treatment of Jewish culture: it’s the traditions that are important — not the meanings — a notion seen in the appropriately titled “Remember Who You Are,” a number that sounds more promising in theory but, in performance, turns out to be an odd Jewish minstrel tune about the difficulties of being a successful Jew in Hollywood.
The music, co-written by pop-music veterans Artie Butler and Mike Stoller, are unremarkable and insipid; in a way, the tunes compliment the schmaltzy nature of the book and lyrics by Iris Rainer Dart. While watching The People in the Picture, I couldn’t help but think, “This is why people hate musicals.” Filled with overly sentimental themes of tradition and motherhood, the show completely eschews all attempts at subtlety — an all-too-common misdeed in musical theatre.
But don’t forget: There’s still a massive genocide to touch on, and I suppose I should devote some space here as the show also went there. The second act begins with an interpretive dance sequence right in the middle of the Warsaw ghetto; it looked like what Debbie Allen would have paired with the score of Life is Beautiful at an Oscars ceremony. While the play avoids any direct action in the death camps, they are certainly mentioned in a last-minute attempt to remind the audience that, despite the fun-loving characters we had previously seen kicking up their legs on stage, Poland in the late ’30s was not full of song-and-dance numbers.
Also tacked onto the plot, in a poor attempt at characterization, is the revelation of a Sophie’s Choice-lite family secret between Raisel and her daughter Red, one that explains within the space of one somber tune the strained relationship between the two women. It comes seemingly out of nowhere much like every other element of this show. It’s also important to note that Red is a writer on a late-night comedy show, but the complete lack of humor in the character we see on stage is somewhat representative of what’s wrong with this show: it’s not fun. It’s a bold move to produce a new, original musical with such dark thematic elements, but one would hope that the folks at the Roundabout would find fresh ways to explore those themes in an equally brave, fresh manner. Instead, The People in the Picture is a mediocre, old-fashioned musical that left me feeling sorry for its cast – especially Donna Murphy, who now has “Holocaust musical” listed on her resume.