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NEW YORK – Given the deluge of movie retreads and jukebox assemblies on Broadway, entirely original musicals are always welcome. But The People in the Picture is an odd duck. While it’s ultimately touching and contains some charming melodies, the show’s earnestly old-fashioned blend of multi-generational melodrama, Holocaust tragedy and Borscht Belt humor makes for a lumpy stew.
Chief attraction of the Roundabout Theater Company production is Donna Murphy, one of Broadway’s classiest leading ladies. She plays Raisel Rabinowitz, the star player of a pre-WWII Yiddish theater company called the Warsaw Gang.
The action shifts between Poland in the turbulent decade of 1935-1946 and New York in 1977, where the elderly Raisel recounts stories from her past to her enraptured granddaughter, Jenny (Rachel Resheff). Physically and vocally, Murphy slips back and forth with fluidity and authority between playing an ailing yet still feisty old woman and her tough-minded younger self. Even in this well-intentioned but wobbly vehicle, Murphy’s work demonstrates again that she’s one of musical theater’s most dramatically nuanced performers.
The score marks a late entry into musicals for Mike Stoller, one half of legendary songwriting hit factory Leiber & Stoller, working with the team’s long-ago Brill Building discovery Artie Butler.
Book and lyrics are by novelist Iris Rainer Dart, best known for Beaches, which also is being developed as a musical. Like the 1988 Bette Midler film adapted from that novel, her work here combines syrupy sentimentality with knowing insights into rocky female relationships. The writer also brings a shticky vaudevillian sensibility. (She apparently never met a tuchas joke she didn’t like; not for nothing have politically incorrect Broadway insiders quietly rechristened the show Jewsical!) The comedy to some degree tempers the material’s cloying sincerity yet stops it being as emotional as it perhaps might have been.
The rhymes in Dart’s lyrics are often so shamelessly hoary that you laugh and wince at the same time: deadpan/bedpan; bamboozle ‘em/Jerusalem; glamorous/mammarous. The writer’s approach mirrors Raisel’s habit of deflecting the suffering in her life with a joke.
The sturdy ensemble embraces the challenges of the material, and director Leonard Foglia has staged the show with a firm grasp of its constant time jumps, unfolding within designer Riccardo Hernandez’seffective set of picture frames within frames. Raisel’s fellow Warsaw Gang players enliven the Polish scenes and haunt the 1977 sections as benevolent ghosts.
The third point of the central triangle is Raisel’s divorced daughter Red (Nicole Parker), whose thorny relationship with her mother and ambivalence toward her history are explained gradually through disclosure of the hard wartime choices that soured the love between them. It’s far from fresh, but the importance of self-knowledge and of maintaining a connection to the past is well developed as a theme.
Among the supporting cast, Alexander Gemignani strikes a soulful note as a homosexual troupe member who saves Raisel from disgrace; Joyce Van Patten is funny as a former ingénue still hard-selling her charms despite having stacked on the years and the pounds; and Parker and Resheff make the most of figures whose outlines are familiar from countless weepies stitched out of the bonds and battles of women across the generations.
The story might have been better served as a four-hanky screen tearjerker, but Murphy elevates the hackneyed material. Her Raisel is a difficult woman whose warmth toward her granddaughter contrasts with her needling criticism of her daughter. Beneath that, she etches layers of vivid experience, both painful and joyous. Whether she’s clowning around as the “Dancing Dybbuk” or reflecting on the cruel tricks of an enfeebled mind in the melancholy “Selective Memory,” she endows the show with a central life force.
Venue: Studio 54, New York (Through June 19)
Cast: Donna Murphy, Alexander Gemignani, Christopher Innvar, Nicole Parker, Rachel Resheff, Hal Robinson, Lewis J. Stadlen, Joyce Van Patten, Chip Zien
Music: Mike Stoller, Artie Butler
Book and lyrics: Iris Rainer Dart
Director: Leonard Foglia
Set designer: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume designer: Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting designer: James F. Ingalls
Sound designer: Dan Moses Schreier
Projection designer: Elaine J. McCarthy
Musical direction: Paul Gemignani
Musical staging: Andy Blankenbuehler
Orchestrations: Michael Starobin
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company in association with Tracy Aron, Al Parinello, Stefany Bergson
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