A musical whose themes encompass the Holocaust and Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t exactly qualify as a feel good experience. That’s perfectly fine—there’s plenty of room on the boards for serious musicals these days. But the Roundabout’s The People in the Picture squanders its good intentions with its ham-fisted execution, a plethora of cheap jokes, and the sort of Jewish stereotypes (an elderly mother tries to score a handsome doctor for her single daughter, among other things) that may please elderly matinee ladies but few others.
Set in 1977 New York City and Warsaw, Poland from 1935 to 1946, the show, written by Iris Rainer Dart (Beaches) revolves around Raisel, alternately seen as an elderly grandmother and a young Yiddish theater star with the “Warsaw Gang,” a popular troupe in pre-World War II Poland.
The company’s members are introduced via their being seen within one of the giant antique wooden frames that are the show’s main scenic element. Raisel is determined to acquaint her young granddaughter Jenny (Rachel Reshelf) with these figures from her past, as well as reconnect her with her Jewish roots that have been severed by her mother, Red (Nicole Parker).
The show alternates between past and present as we see Raisel and her fellow actors contending with the increasing brutalization perpetrated by the Nazis and later her struggling with the disease that is sapping her of her mental faculties.
A major plot element, one that explains Red’s disaffection with her mother, revolves around Raisel’s decision to safeguard her young daughter by entrusting them to a Christian couple and then later wrenching the traumatized young girl away from her loving adoptive parents.
But the show’s serious themes are undercut by the jokey book, which includes such gags as the troupe’s diva commenting, “I believe that if one surrounds oneself with the proper hair and make-up people, one need never go to elder care.”
The lyrics, also written by Dart, are even more wince inducing. Consider this sample from “Remember Who You Are,” about the troupe’s director (Christopher Invar) considering an offer to work in Hollywood: “They’ll change your name/Dye your hair/Re-install a foreskin/Remember who you are/When they step in and try to redo you/Remember who you are/’Cause they’re all going to try to unjew you.”
And the less said about the excerpt from the company’s musical comedy version of The Debunk, the better.
What makes the evening bearable, and sometimes more than that, is the steady anchoring presence of Donna Murphy. The formidable musical theater actress has rarely been better, not only singing gorgeously here but also handling the quicksilver transformations between the younger and older versions of her character with breathtaking facility.
She’s well supported by the rest of the ensemble, including Resheff, previously seen as the young Princess Fiona in Shrek, displaying a precocious talent; Parker, who infuses her less than sympathetic character with real depth; and such pros as Chip Zien, Lewis J. Stadlin, Joyce Van Patten and Alexander Gemignani making strong impressions as members of the Warsaw Gang.
Leonard Foglia’s direction and Andy Blankenbuehler’s musical staging is reasonably adept, even if it too often calls to mind Fiddler on the Roof.
The musical score--written by veteran pop songwriter Mike Stoller (“Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock” and countless other classics with his partner Jerry Leiber) and Artie Butler—boasts few memorable numbers, with the exception of the stirring “We Were Here.”
The People in the Picture is an ambitious and well-meaning show, to be sure. Unfortunately, that only serves to make its many flaws all the more glaring.
Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St. 212-719-1300. www.roundabouttheatre.org.
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