Sunday, April 30, 2006

Melancholy Parable

Brundibar, composed by Hans Krasa

But the Giraffe, written by Tony Kushner
Directed by Tony Taccone
New Victory Theater through May 21, 2006

Image There's a sad story behind the one-act children's opera Brundibar. Nearly the entire cast, along with its composer, Czech modernist Hans Krasa, were murdered in Auschwitz in 1944, soon after performing the work for the Red Cross at the Terezin detention camp, which was the Nazis' way of showing the world that Jews still retained "culture." This fact can't help but color any new production, and that's especially true of the Brundibar staging at the New Victory Theater.

Originally, fellow Czech Bohuslav Martinu's witty one-act opera Comedy on the Bridge was supposed to be the evening's curtain-raiser, but that was changed following its performances at the Berkeley Rep in California. Since then, playwright Tony Kushner–who collaborated with children's illustrator Maurice Sendak on this adaptation of Krasa's delightful opera by writing a new, amusing English-language libretto–penned a short playlet, But the Giraffe, to precede the performance of Brundibar.

But the Giraffe, a fictionalized version of how the score for Brundibar was originally smuggled into the concentration camp, is well-acted by a cast led by the excellent child actress Danielle Freid, and Kushner even introduces some appropriate humor. But as a curtain-raiser to an opera that is (mostly) for children, it seems superfluous and inappropriate: adults may well be explaining to their youngsters just why these people are packing their bags to leave home forever while wearing large yellow stars.

Director Tony Taccone is shrewd enough to let his young star speak to the audience during the play's curtain call, reminding them that Brundibar awaits after intermission. And, as always when Sendak is involved, this production is a visual as well as musical delight.

An obvious parable for Nazi Germany, Brundibar follows a brother and sister looking for milk for their sick mother. Their attempts at singing to raise money are upset by the local organ grinder Brundibar (Czech for "bumblebee"), who scares them away. However, with the help of a sparrow, cat and dog and the local children, the kids overcome Brundibar and force him out–not, however, until he warns that he will return.

In a little more than a half-hour, Brundibar combines a fairy tale story, wonderfully hummable music and an enlightened–if melancholy – ending to create a truly inspired work of music-theater. Sendak and Kris Stone's dynamic designs are children's views of the real world writ large, splashing fantastic flights of fantasy across every scene.

Kushner's rhyming libretto is perfectly serviceable, and many of his lyrics are funny and poignant without being maudlin. This is actually Kushner's most succinct, satisfying work to date. And every performer is outstanding, with special mention made of the young leads, Aaron Simon Gross and Devynn Pedell, and the hilariously villainous Euan Morton as nasty ol' Brundibar.

Even the shroud of finality hanging over this opera can't prevent audiences from warming to the beautifully-crafted Brundibar of Hans Krasa, also a fine composer of "adult" classical music, including another opera deserving wider currency, Betrothal in a Dream.

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