Donna Murphy (right) in The People in the Picture (photo by Joan Marcus)
The People in the Picture
Book and lyrics by Iris Rainer Dart
Music by Mike Stoller and Artie Butler
Starring Donna Murphy, Alexander Gemignani, Christopher Innvar, Nicole Parker, Rachel Resheff, Hal Robinson, Lewis J. Stadlen, Joyce Van Patten, Chip Zien
Directed by Leonard Foglia
Performances through June 19, 2011
Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street
The People in the Picture, the heartwrenching story of Bubbie, a Polish grandmother in 1970s New York City, who lives with her daughter Red and granddaughter Jenny, shows how ghosts from her past haunt her present: these are the close friends and relatives from Nazi-occupied Warsaw, with whom she (then a talented actress named Raisel) worked in a Yiddish theater group until Hitler’s mass murderers destroyed the group and many lives.
A perfectly valid subject for a Broadway musical, The People in the Picture is, however, consistently softened by its creators, who sense that musical numbers about Kristallnacht and the Warsaw Ghetto wouldn’t go over well with their audience. So a lot of the show is given over to cutesy scenes of the theater troupe making its audiences happy while performing live or making movies, which allows for conventional and self-referential ethnic jokes alongside extraneous recreations of 1930s filmmaking.
Bookwriter/lyricist Iris Rainer Dart, who obviously feels this story is close to her heart, alternates tender and antagonistic scenes between Bubbie and Red, whose relationship has been strained for years. Later, the big secret that caused the strain is dramatized, but any horror we should feel is conspicuously absent from a threadbare stage production that has been scrubbed clean of any needed ambiguity or tension. Riccardo Hernandez’s sets comprise various oversized picture frames that literalize the title but do little else. James F. Ingalls’ evocative lighting and Ann Hould-Ward’s well-worn costumes are closer to the mark, but Andy Blankenbuehler’s by-the-numbers choreography reeks of desperation: “this is a musical, so let’s have dancers onstage” is its calling card.
Mike Stoller and Artie Butler's songs, either klezmer-infected pop or sappy power ballads, are interchangeable, with the partial exceptions of two Act II numbers, “Selective Memory” and “Saying Goodbye,” that receive powerhouse performances.
And a powerhouse is what Donna Murphy is. Extolling the virtues of Sutton Foster as our reigning Broadway musical champion in Anything Goes doesn't mean I hold Murphy in lesser esteem. Obviously, she won’t play ingénues or romantic leading ladies any more, but her Raisel/Bubbie is a psychologically complex and musically expert performance that separates her from everyone else around. Effortlessly playing a character in her 30s and in her 70s—and quite often in the same scene—Murphy cannily adopts pinpoint stage movements and unique vocal mannerisms to keep Raisel and Bubbie separate, even brilliantly singing in two different voices.
Her Act II solo number, “Selective Memory,” is a big showstopping aria that finds all of its power in Murphy's emotionally naked vocals, which put across Bubbie's sorrow at losing her memory at the same time she still remembers Raisel's long-lost love. The musical's other memorable song, “Saying Goodbye,” which Murphy sings with Andie Mechanic as Young Red, works because of the inspired pairing of the veteran actress with this young girl with a dynamite voice. Unfortunately, these heartbreaking moments don't ensure the show's success, unless our selective memory tells us otherwise.
Murphy and Mechanic both rise above the fractured material, but Nicole Parker (Red), Rachel Resheff (Jenny) and the ghostly troupe led by Broadway pros like Chip Zein, Joyce Van Patten and Alexander Gemignani are defeated by it. And Leonard Foglia's flashy direction suggests that he too is fighting a losing battle against a subpar book, forgettable lyrics and mostly routine songs.