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A CurtainUp Review
Signs of Life

It's a story about what it's like to be caught in a web of tyranny and deception, and what people do mentally and emotionally to survive it; we want people to see it not only as a Holocaust story, but as a human story. —Virginia Spiegel Criste, producer.
Signs of Life
Patricia Noonan
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
With minimal props and an often haunting musical score, a dedicated ensemble earnestly explores what survival means after everything is lost. There are effective performances in Signs of Life , many informative and touching moments. It's too bad that the production fails to fully bring out the heartbreaking poignancy inherent in this fact based story.

This musical drama at Marjorie S. Deane Little Theatre is set in the Jewish ghetto of Terezin near Prague that Hitler renamed Theresienstadt. The Nazis populated the ghetto with prominent and artistic European Jews, planning to use their talents for international propaganda by coercing them to depict Theresienstadt as a vibrant, artistic mecca of theater, concerts, and lectures. In truth, they were prisoners who would eventually be sent East to die in Auschwitz.

Director Jeremy Dobrish focuses on the uniqueness of the characters and the cohesive spirit of the ensemble, keeping them vital with humor and hope despite the horror. Patricia Noonan is a convincing as Lorelei, the young girl who must face the reality of what she must do to please the Nazis in order to stay alive. She also creates and hides a secret cache of pictures that will tell the world that Theresienstadt was not the vital "City of the Jews" but a ghetto under the heel of the Nazis. Noonan reveals Lorelei's maturity, her growing sense of responsibility for her family and her eventual love for Simon, the love-struck political activist played by Wilson Bridges. She sees beneath the Simon's untamed loquaciousness, which often gets irritating. The depth of his feelings is evident with the quirky but practical gift he makes for her.

Jason Collins stands out as the self-serving but supportive cabaret performer Kurt Gerard. Erika Amato gives a passionate performance as Berta, who has been discarded by her husband althoughshe converted to Christianity years ago. Her "Home Again Soon," about the suffering Polish children in the camp is one of the most poignant songs.

Nic Cory plays Jonas, Lorelei's friend, a reckless Jew and homosexual who won't play the Nazis' game. He sketches the sheer misery around him and is the first to be sent East. Cory also portrays a Red Cross Inspector and later, a Russian soldier.

The Nazis are represented by Commandant Raum (Kurt Zischke) who follows the rules and protects his own interest. Most dispicable is Officer Heindel (Allen E. Read), who proudly expresses his true feelings in song ("We should not treat the solution to the Jewish problem as if it were shameful. We should shout it in the streets, proclaim it to the heavens").

Musical Director-pianist Mike Pettry leads the offstage quartet. The melodic chords by Joel Derfner with Len Schiff's narrative lyrics define the situations and characters. While no songs can stand alone out of context, as a score they add a cohesive mesh. An anthem performed by the company in the finale, "Finding a Way to Live,", builds into a rousing harmonic declaration of human spirit. An effective set design by Alexis Distler has a clever wall and platform of suitcases, providing niches where many drawings were hidden. The video projections as a backdrop were are touches but nothing in the inmates' costumes reveals their obvious deterioration.

The genesis of this musical came when producer Virginia Spiegel Criste traveled to Czechoslovakia to research her grandparents' lives. Before their death at Auschwitz, her grandparents lived in the Jewish ghetto of Terezin near Prague that Hitler renamed Theresienstadt. Criste instigated the search about life in the ghetto now translated by Peter Ulliam into a fact-filled musical story.

A sample of the surviving drawings is displayed in the theater adds heart to the program, so necessary to balance the cruel, cynical disparity of Theresienstadt. Also worth checking out are the scheduled post performance talkbacks with Terezin survivors and others.

Signs of Life
Book by Peter Ullian
Score by Joel Derfner; lyrics by Len Schiff
Directed by Jeremy Dobrish

Cast: Erika Amato, Wilson Bridges, Jason Collins, Nic Cory, Gabe Green,  Patricia Noonan, Allen E. Read, Stuart Zagnit, and Kurt Zischke
Lyrics: Len Schiff
Music: Joel Derfner
Music Direction: Michael Pettry
Musical Staging: Christine O'Grady
Set Design: Alexis Distler
Costume Design: Jennifer Caprio
Lighting Design: Michael Gottlieb
Sound Design: Michael Eisenberg
Video Design: Chris Kateff
Running Time: Two and one-half hours with 10 minute intermission.
Amas Musical Theater at Marjorie S. Deane Little Theatre 5 West 63rd St
(212) 246 — 4422
Tickets: $55. In preview, $40.
Performances: Tuesday at 7:30 PM; Wednesday-Saturday at 8 PM; Saturday and Sunday at 3 PM.
From 2/16/10; opening 2/25/10; closing 3/21/10. Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors based on performance 2/23/10
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