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A Review of The People in the Picture

By Tyler Coates
Thursday, May 12th, 2011
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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.

  • Harriet Sepinwall

    I would like to know more about Tyler Coates, the writer of this review of “The People in the Picture” and his knowledge of the Holocaust and experience with survivors. I have been studying and teaching about the Holocaust at a Catholic college for more than 20 years, and am co-director of a Holocaust education center. I have met many survivors whose stories have many elements of what was conveyed by the writers of and actors in “The People in the Picture.” I would love to take Tyler Coates to meet some of my friends who are survivors and also their children. Many of them still are learning new information about their past, and some have kept secrets for many years that only now are being revealed to their children and grandchildren. I found the story and the songs to ring true, and there were many scenes that depicted the”choiceless choices” and feelings that have been expressed by survivors I know well. I really appreciated what Donna Murphy and the other cast members did to convey what I know to be part of the truth of the Holocaust. I think that it would have been helpful for your reviewer to have more knowledge of Jewish life before the Holocaust (and the role of Yiddish theater) and during the Holocaust as well as of the impact of the Holocaust on survivors and their families even to today. Dismissing this show as “old” and not “fresh” or “fun” enough just seems out of touch with the reality of the history of the Holocaust and also demonstrates insensity to the realities of this complex history. and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to see it, and express my appreciation to all involved in this production.

  • Stefan

    Well Harriet it seems Tyler was asked to review a new play not be a Holocaust history buff. Good for you that you have so much knowledge on the subject but not everybody does. I cant imagine what kind of world you live in that you seem to think that having a valid opinion about a play requires a person to have some vast knowlege of the subject. You must be a real joy to be around. Get over yourself.