Review of the April 30 matinee performance. At Studio 54 on Broadway, New York City. 2 hours, 20 minutes, including an intermission. Starring Donna Murphy, Alexander Gemignani, Christopher Innvar, Nicole Parker, Rachel Resheff, Hal Robinson, Lewis J. Stadlen, Joyce Van Patten and Chip Zien. Book and lyrics by Iris Rainer Dart. Music by Mike Stoller and Artie Butler. Choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler. Direction by Leonard Foglia.
In the interest of complete honesty, there are three things that really push my emotional buttons: anything to do with grandmothers, a deathbed scene that has the full range of familial angst, anger and sorrow, and anything to do with the Holocaust. So it probably isn't hard to understand why I, unlike many critics, found The People in the Picture to be the almost perfect mix of the three all wrapped up in a musical theatre gift box. Is it schmaltzy? Oy vey, is it! Is it sentimental? To a fault. But it is also thought-provoking, sad, triumphant and even funny. And what is wrong with a well-crafted, if obvious, tale that leads to the inevitable sobs heard all around Studio 54 last Saturday? Does everything have to be so extreme - riotously funny/mildly profane or deeply, profoundly serious with historic repercussions? NO! There is room in the Broadway season for some pasty-faced Mormons, some unjustly incarcerated kids in the Jim Crow south and a lesson about knowing where you come from being just as important as where you are going through the filter of oppressed Jews in Warsaw during World War II.
The first act is the more flawed of the two. Book writer Iris Rainer Dart lets too many cats out of the bag too soon. Within minutes, she has revealed who the titular people are in the picture (at least the first one of two), introduced about a dozen or so characters, and the construct that we will be going back and forth between past and present as Bubbie desperately tries to get her family history recorded with the help of her completely smitten granddaughter, who drinks in every word. Time is running out, as Bubbie wrestles with her past, her grown daughter and memory loss; being sent to a nursing home is akin to going back to the ghetto. In some shows, it takes way too long to get into the story; here a little more time to savor the plot elements and less abruptly introduce a long-gone acting style might have made everything a little less obvious (plot-wise) and easier to understand (the Yiddish theatre conventions utilized) in the conceptual aspects of the show.
Things calm down as the story - the modern part, anyway - gets going, and we start to see the dynamic between three generations of strong women. The oldest, Bubbie (Donna Murphy), knows her time is running out and stubbornly clings to life while she tries to get the family history down on record, hampered by a rapidly aging body and a mind that is like a steel trap for the details of long ago, but like a sieve for things of the day. Her daughter, Red (Nicole Parker) is as strong-willed as her mother, but wants nothing to do with her heritage, while Red's daughter/Bubbie's granddaughter (Rachel Reshoff) indulges Bubbie's every whim, so in love with her grandmother is she, while trying to keep her own mother from putting the eldest away for good. Then, as we start to get more of The Warsaw Gang, and see more of Bubbie's younger self, Raisel, the picture as it were is much clearer. And guess what? The extremes of the Yiddish theatre are easier to take and even poignant as they entertain.
In probably her best performance since Fosca in Passion, Donna Murphy again proves what an absolute gem she is, and what a true musical theatre star. Had she hit her peak (and I'm not implying she's past hers yet) in another era, she'd be a household name. The kind of celebrity that people all over the country would drive miles to see as she headlines the tour of her Broadway smash hit. Thank the theatrical heavens that she behaves like a true theatre star. She takes the work seriously, stretches herself, and never "calls it in." But her brilliance in this vehicle is simply jaw-dropping. Just to watch her transform, back and forth between 30-something actress Raisel and 70-something Bubbie, is a study in acting magic. Aided only by a scarf and easily changed costumes (excellently designed and implemented by designer Ann Hould-Ward), a slight change in pace and gait, and an almost invisibly changed posture, the transformation occurs in mere seconds. Once, the transformation goes back and forth over the space of one uttered sentence. Ms. Murphy is transcendent in a role that was perfectly matched to her considerable gifts. There are not many great actresses that can make you laugh and cry almost simultaneously, whose physicality is so engrossing and real that a stage fall is cause for a genuine gasp and a flash of concern (is she alright?) until you realize that she is acting so damned well. A demanding role, she must be able to do tough dramatic scenes, arguing and fighting for her life, be warm and almost cuddly as a cookie-scented grandma should be, and as grand and voracious about life as a young woman thrown unwillingly into an impossible situation can be. It is this very range that allows us to laugh with, be angered by, and ultimately cheer for the heroine that both Raisel and Bubbie are. It would be a shame if Ms. Murphy did not earn her third Tony for this breathtaking tour-de-force performance.
Her supporting cast is no bunch of slouches, either, including her youngest co-star, Rachel Resheff, who gives a grounded, sweet performance as the granddaughter, Jenny. It is clear that Miss Resheff is as smitten with her leading lady as her character is, and one senses that this child actress is soaking up everything she can from Ms. Murphy at every performance. In a season full of (THANK YOU GOD) child actors who are "real' and not annoying Annie clones, she has the most to work with and turns in a performance most adult actors only wish they could pull off. Your heart will break right along with hers in the final moments.
Unfortunately, this show opened in a particularly competitive season, where, in comparison, it might have come out better with the critics. Still, it provides a thoughtful, emotional and ultimately satisfying end to a chaotic season of extremes. And it gave us another brilliant performance by a true Broadway star. Brava, Donna Murphy! The show ends its limited run on June 19th. I strongly urge you not to miss this performance or this quiet little gem of a show.
(Photos by Joan Marcus)
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