Review: “Signs of Life”

SLIGHTLY RECOMMENDED

Where: Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
When: through Oct. 27
Tickets: $45-$65
Phone: 773-871-3000

A musical about the Nazi ghetto of Theresienstadt (Terezin in Czech) is bound to be a tough sell, and unfortunately “Signs of Life” doesn’t pull it off. 

Originally commissioned by Virginia S. Criste, who visited to learn more about her grandparent’s last years in the “City for the Jews” intended to deceive the Red Cross, the show never comes together in a cohesive way, and the current production directed by Lisa Portes is very uneven.
The book by Peter Ullian is too diffuse, the loose plot lines are totally predictable (except when they’re confusing) and the characters are stereotypical, underdeveloped or both. The thematic focus is on how the artistic and academic Jews of Europe held at Theresienstadt – before being transported east to the death camps – at first cooperated with their captors by creating art that supported the rosy picture of the town, but once they realized what was going on, they sketched what they saw and were able to leave a partial record of the horrible conditions hidden away. But the evening opens with a different thread, a rehearsal of the play-within-a-play the prisoners are supposed to put on for the Red Cross. This is interrupted by the arrival of newcomers Lorelei Schumann, her little brother Wolfie and their grandfather Jacob, and then picked up again for one more brief rehearsal and the performance of “A City for the Jews” for the inspector that closes Act 1.

Seventeen-year-old Lorelei (Megan Long) becomes the main character, but her sexual and artistic awakenings are completely clichéd. Between her adolescent adulation of Kurt Gerard (Jason Collins), the cabaret performer-impresario directing the play-within-a-play and love scenes with simple Simon Miller (Matt Edmonds), Ullian comes up with some of the most artificial dialogue in two hours badly in need of rewrites. The others taxed with making the lines sound believable include Brennan Dougherty as the “resourceful” kid Wolfie, Michael Joseph Mitchell as stalwart Jacob, Nathan Cooper as closeted gay artist Jonas and Lara Filip as Berta Pluhar, a German convert to Christianity thrown out by a husband ambitious for advancement in the party. Their Nazi tormentors are Officer Heindel (Doug Pawlik), a sadistic true believer, and Commandant Rahm (James Rank), an efficient bureaucrat who lacks any of his colleague’s passion. He also confronts Kurt with a classic moral dilemma, resulting in repeated failed fumbling with the art works that makes little sense.
With few exceptions, Len Schiff’s lyrics aren’t much better than the script, but Joel Derfner’s music is far more interesting. The most moving number, in fact the only moving number, is “Home Again Soon,” Berta’s account of what his happening to the children, followed by Jacob’s “Mourner’s Kaddish.” Filip deserves credit; she has the best voice in the ensemble, and it is quite beautiful, though Mitchell‘s rougher tones provide just the right contrast here.

The most bizarre song, and one that just doesn’t belong, is “Good,” psychopath Heindel’s anthem of self-justification. Delivered without a trace of irony, it put me in mind of “Springtime for Hitler” from “The Producers” without the humor.

Brian Sidney Bembridge’s barnlike set that’s supposed to be the “attic” theater part of the time looks intriguing but doesn’t serve the action – or Anna Henson’s projection design – very well. Half-a-dozen benches are the main props, but there’s nothing to suggest the town or the plight of the people in it.