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Paulanne Simmons

“The People in the Picture” Takes a Journey into the Past

“The People in the Picture”
Directed by Leonard Foglia
Roundabout Theatre Company
Studio 54
254 West 54th Street
Opened April 28, 2011
Tues. at 8pm, Wed at 2pm & 8pm, Thurs. & Fri. at at 8pm, Sat. at 2pm * 8pm, Sun. at 2pm
Tickets: $37 - $122 (212) 719-1300 roundabouttheatre.org
Closes June 19, 2011
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons May 5, 2011

At a time when the most successful musicals on Broadway are about either a group of Mormons trying to convert Africans who curse God in the most profane terms, three drag queens traveling into the heart of Australia or an aspiring songstress who hides out in a convent after witnessing a murder, it takes a special kind of chutzpah to produce a show about a Jewish grandmother struggling to teach her granddaughter about her life in the Yiddish theater before the Holocaust. Apparently Roundabout Theatre and Tracy Aron had it.

“The People in the Picture” has a book and lyrics by Iris Rainer Dart, author of the bestseller Beaches; and music by Mark Stoller, the composer behind “Smokey Joe’s Cafe, and Artie Butler (“Here’s to LIfe”). It is directed by Broadway veteran Leonard Foglia and features the incomparable Donna Murphy as the feisty grandmother. It even has an adorable young lady with a great set of pipes, Rachel Resheff, playing the granddaughter, and another adorable young lady Andie Mechanic, plays her mother, Red (NIcole Parker) as a little girl.

But when cynicism prevails, nothing can save this overly sincere work from the critic’s knife. Of course in many ways the show itself is to blame. We’ve all seen much of it before: the strong-willed but declining elderly woman, the ambivalent daughter, the innocent child who becomes a victim of problems she did not create. But “The People in the Picture” does offer some interesting twists that should not be ignored.

Firstly, the portrayal of the Yiddish theater by Joyce Van Patten, Hal Robinson Lewis J. Stadlen and Chip Zien is both accurate and fascinating. Secondly, the score, inflected with Klezmer and middle-Europe tunes, is delightful. Who could resist the comedic “Ich, Uch, Feh,” which commemorates the sounds of Yiddish, or the haunting “We Were Here” and “Remember Who You Are”? And finally, Murphy’s seamless transformations back and forth between her character’s older and younger selves is a marvel to witness.

What’s more, the plot does take some unexpected turns when the the past is completely revealed to young Jenny. This leads to a totally satisfying and understandable ending, something not always welcomed by the intelligentsia.

Ricardo Hernandez’s set, dominated by a picture frame in which the people in the picture come to life, may not do a perfect job in evoking the era, but it does set the stage for the mood of nostalgia that prevails throughout the show.

Before closing, I must make one confession, the lullaby “Oyfen Pripitchik,” which plays a prominent role in the musical, is one my mother sang to me when I was a child, a lullaby she no doubt learned from her mother.

But then, isn’t that what this admittedly schmaltzy show is all about? And what’s so wrong with remembering and honoring our past, and teaching it to our children?

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