Saturday, April 19, 2014

Martin Luther King went to the mountaintop, but IRT play tries to climb higher

There's no underestimating the risks Katori Hall assumed in writing a play about Martin Luther King Jr.'s last hours on Earth.

"The Mountaintop" — now at Indiana Repertory Theatre through April 27 — tackles more than a martyred historical figure many people regard with reverence. The young minister who defined the American civil-rights movement and established the value of nonviolent protest as an agent of social change is almost inadequately defined by the cliche "larger than life."
Katori Hall's play imagines what happened the day before this fateful appearance.

And yet drama has to right-size even heroes to effect a genuine emotional exchange between actors and spectators. Ms. Hall has done that with determination: Her MLK comes onstage with a weakness for cigarettes, raging semi-jocularly at Ralph David Abernathy to bring him some Pall Malls.  He soon displays  a susceptibility to female charms, as well as fear of thunderstorms and the FBI (both well-founded) and a weariness unto death that engenders deep doubts as to the efficacy of his mission.

This flawed man is nonetheless a hero, and the play mirrors both the flaws and the heroism. Set in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, which has since 1968 become a national shrine, "The Mountaintop" benefits here from the all-out performances of David Alan Anderson as King and Tracey N. Bonner as Camae, tussling titanically on the night before King's assassination. IRT associate artistic director Courtney Sale directs.

Who's Camae? I hear you ask. The uniformed motel maid is Hall's creation, vital to the story she wants to tell. Camae enters Room 306 in response to the pastor's request for coffee. He's attempting to fuel his mind to complete a hell-raising speech about the country he loves and often despairs of.

What Camae also is forces me to violate widely accepted "spoiler etiquette" in order to write about "The Mountaintop" at all. I feel justified in doing so because Camae's identity as more than a saucy motel employee becomes clear fairly early in the action, not at the end. Thus, much of "The Mountaintop"'s substance rests on Camae's revelation that she is an angel, an emissary of God come to call her (the pronoun is repeatedly underlined) servant home.

Whatever place angels may have in a person's theology, I hope many of us recognize that the use of angels in today's popular culture is kitsch. The most common perception, which Hall shares, is that angels are beatified human beings returned from the afterlife at the behest of the Almighty. Ghosts are also kitsch, but their appeal can never be exhausted in popular or high art because everyone feels the presence of dear departed ones in daily life. It takes a major leap of faith to elevate them to angelic status, though doing so doubtless comforts many believers.

The materiality and presence of human traits in angels goes way back, but it's still important to realize that the dramatic plaything Hall makes of Camae is a far cry from the being so crucial to the event Christians are celebrating this weekend. In Matthew, it is an angel with a " lightning" who descends from heaven, rolls back the stone, and tells the two Marys that Jesus has risen from the dead. The other synoptic gospels make the messenger's identity ambiguous by saying the good news is conveyed by one white-robed young man (Mark) or two (Luke).

In Hall's imagination, a recently deceased human being can quickly be reprogrammed to carry out an angelic mission. I respect spoiler etiquette enough not to reveal why Camae is particularly suited to the task. Quite a lot of "The Mountaintop" builds on how much Camae and Martin come to know about each other's earthly trials, then moves that relationship onto a supernatural plane. This lofty plateau will be taken for "spiritual" by some of the show's patrons, but to me it felt manipulative and borderline farcical (especially in Martin's contentious phone conversation with God, after Camae has dialed a lengthy series of numbers to put him through).

The sound and lighting design (the work of Tom Horan and Kate Leahy, respectively) is bent toward maximizing the wonders of King's encounter with his fate. It works well, and near the end gets boosted into a dramatically superfluous, amplified narration in list form of events and people between King's death and today. That's accompanied by a rapid photographic montage on translucent screens that suddenly surround the stage. This vision of the future is granted the doomed minister as a reward for his wholehearted service to others and his grudging acceptance of the fate that will end all that.

Hall uses an awful lot of stage time having King complain about being cut off just when he's about to bring his broadened vision of social justice to the nation's attention, supporting the sanitation workers' strike in Memphis. There is so much more he needs to do, he protests.

At this point, a unique prophet and driver of social change is reduced almost too much in stature. Any one of us (apart from the terminally ill), if informed of our particular demise by Someone From Beyond, would whine about it. What King could have accomplished is arguably greater than the putative deeds of most who die too young.

But who wouldn't try to argue God out of such a seemingly arbitrary, premature decision? And wouldn't a man as devout as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., facing eternity, be more likely to ask for redemption than for the dubious privilege of continuing his earthly struggle?

In sum, it's not in the early part of "The Mountaintop" that King is cut down to size. The interweaving of his weakness and his strength is well-handled. But the intrusiveness of the angel and her bad news takes him down too far, because his sense of injustice becomes wholly personal and private.

When King at the end comes to the front of the stage and twice asks for an "Ay-men" to his vision for America, he gets it — and deserves it. But, whatever honor the playwright may have intended, he also deserves to be free of an angelic visitation that makes him a pawn in some feminized deity's cruel game.

Friday, April 18, 2014

1990 IVCI laureate David Kim gives special zing to Ronen Chamber Ensemble program

David Kim participated throughout, and his contributions were vital.
You could tell from the way David Kim and Rohan De Silva played the Gavotte with Two Variations in Igor Stravinsky's "Suite Italienne" that the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis' annual collaborative concert with the Ronen Chamber Ensemble would be something special.

The opening piece on the concert Thursday night did not involve the durable chamber-music organization co-directed by David Bellman and Ingrid Fischer-Bellman. But the quality of the guest artists helped ensure that the rising tide of Kim and De Silva would lift all musical boats. The audience that nearly filled the Basile Theater at the Indiana History Center seemed to agree by the time the concert wrapped up with Erno Dohnanyi's Sextet in C major for piano, violin, viola, cello, clarinet and horn.

That one Stravinsky movement had an adroit blend of 18th-century poise and 20th-century modernist detachment. The two variations were lent independent profiles, following the crisply characterized gavotte theme. The whole suite was played with distinction, but the gavotte-and-variations confirmed  how insightful artists can impart personality to emotionally reserved music.

De Silva and Kim, a 1990 IVCI laureate who is now concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, were also in the spotlight after intermission, performing Brahms' Sonata No. 2 in A major, op. 100. Admirable was the linking of contrasting episodes in the second movement, utterly natural as it unrolled. Kim's bow control and phrasing were exquisite in the finale, and the tone got a rich exhibition with the music's focus on the violin's lower range.

Kim's involvement in the other two works on the program was crucial to their success. But it couldn't do much to sustain my interest in John Corigliano's "Soliloquy" for clarinet and string quartet. Adapted from a movement of the composer's Clarinet Concerto, the work is a nostalgic evocation of his father, John Corigliano Sr., concertmaster for 23 years of the New York Philharmonic.

The piece is well put together, but, on first hearing, seemed mostly an excuse for low-key, reflective dialogue between first violin (Kim) and clarinet (Bellman). A logical choice for this program, it justified itself mainly in that sense. (And, in a technological aside, it demonstrated that Kim was just as deft turning iPad pages with his right foot while sitting down as he had been standing up in "Suite Italienne.")

The concert's second half was devoted to the Dohnanyi Sextet. Dohnanyi was an obvious yet effective composer, a kind of Brahms lite: The first movement of this piece is almost comically grandiloquent, with the charge led by the horn. Guest pianist and violinist and the Ronen group launched into it with gusto.

As the performance proceeded, it soon became clear that Kim's violin was casting his two string colleagues (violist Nancy Agres and cellist Fischer-Bellman) in the shade. It's not that he displayed a domineering manner, but that the other two players needed to project more.

Better balance was displayed in the slow movement, but when the score abounded with shorter note values, especially in the first and last movements, Kim's colleagues lacked the guest violinist's oomph. Apart from a few horn burbles, the winds (Rob Danforth and Bellman) acquitted themselves well throughout, and Da Silva evinced his usual facility and panache at the keyboard.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Putting its interpretive heritage to work, Takacs Quartet presents 3 Bartok quartets for Ensemble Music finale

Takacs Quartet made a return visit to focus on Bela Bartok.
Some works of art seem to address what the time of their creation needs and expresses, as well as what suits the personality and artistic development of their creators.

The six string quartets of Bela Bartok are certainly representative of that truth for the early 20th century. They have outlived their time, of course, to become among the permanent glories of the repertoire.

Wednesday night at the Indiana History Center, the Takacs Quartet played three of them. The concert was the season finale of the Ensemble Music Society, whose services to classical music in Indianapolis are unique and enduring. The quartet, now in residence at the University of Colorado, was formed in Budapest in 1975; two original members remain, second violinist Karoly Schranz and cellist Andras Fejer.

Bartok (1881-1945) emerged from the shadow of late Romanticism, with an early overlay of Debussyan impressionism, to forge an original kind of modernism. His aesthetic took rhythmic, melodic and harmonic cues from the Magyar folk music in which the Hungarian was steeped by both affinity and avocation.

First violinist Edward Dusinberre provided concise, enlightening program notes from the stage during the first half, supplementing Marianne W. Tobias' worthwhile contributions to the booklet. He made the connection between Bartok's times and his artistic decisions explicit, especially with respect to Quartet No. 6 (1939), a product of gloomy personal and political circumstances.

The Takacs' performance of Bartok's final piece for two violins, viola, and cello put in high profile the synthesis the composer achieved between the slow, sad introduction of each movement and its distinct character. By the finale, the "mesto" (sad) indication governs everything, with total ensemble commitment to developing the reigning mood and the material used to express it. In contrast to what precedes it, the last movement's chaste use of string sonorities, relieved only by a late, electrifying tremolo shudder sul ponticello, received a poised demonstration in this performance.

In the earlier movements, the sad music was outlined spellbindingly by violist Geraldine Walther (first movement),  Fejer (second movement), and Dusinberre (third movement). Of the main sections, the droll vigor imparted to the "Burletta: Moderato" stood out for its blend of control and wild abandon.

The concert opened with a performance of Quartet No. 2 (1915-17), with Debussyan colors marking the first movement in particular. The second movement brings out the rough and playful side of the composer; those aspects are strenuous and dissonant in early Bartok. By the time of the late Concerto for Orchestra, the rough playfulness had been smoothed out, but remained characteristic. The Takacs tore into that movement in a way that offered maximum contrast with the "Lento" finale, music that seemed to offer something sustaining to cling to.

Quartet No. 4 (1928) brought the concert up to intermission. The brutal first movement sounded emotionally detached, which struck me as apt, considering the work's emergence in modernism's heyday. I wouldn't fault any of the interpretive decisions behind this persuasive reading.

The sinister, elfin quality of the second movement balanced its more insouciant companion movement: the fourth — all pizzicato with a wry ending. The aching tension evident in Fejer's performance of the third-movement cello melody was carried throughout, making of this centerpiece an emotional fulcrum on which the whole balanced.

The feeling of satisfying completeness after the three works were so well performed meant that no encore was offered — or expected, despite the loud, jubilant ovation, which indicated the audience felt sufficiently rewarded.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

University of Indianapolis faculty end their season with a smooth display of collegiality

If the way they performed together Monday night is any indication, the music faculty of the University of Indianapolis is a most harmonious group.

I will not inquire too closely what goes on at their faculty meetings in order to preserve my pleasant notion of a "peaceable kingdom" reigning over the DeHaan Fine Arts Center. The "Season Finale" concert was probably a public display of an estimable rapport among musicians associated with the department through full- and part-time teaching there.
Three musicians: Anne McCafferty, Harry Miedema, Anne Reynolds.

That's not to omit Nick Tucker, one of the stellar graduates of UIndy's jazz program, which has been shepherded into eminence by Harry Miedema, who retires at the end of the current school year.  A tenor saxophonist of wide professional experience before getting into academia, Miedema has consistently raised the visibility and substance of jazz education at the Southside school. To boost its public profile, he has put together in recent years a season-long jazz concert series culminating in the annual Jazz Week, recently concluded.

Bassist Tucker and  Miedema combined for a program-ending duet, Miles Davis' "Solar," a jazz standard for nearly 60 years. After an interwoven out-of-tempo introduction, the compatible duo launched into the tune.  The performance was relaxed, swinging, affectionate and no doubt a mite nostalgic.

Piquantly heralding that performance in the otherwise all-classical program was Charles Ives' "Largo" for violin and piano.  With its folkish theme, elaborated unpredictably and with some agitation, the composition shares a rough emotional and stylistic affinity with jazz — though of course it is in no sense jazz.

Typical of Ives, even in its reflective main section, the piece is too idiosyncratic and flavored with dissonance to take a mollycoddling approach to its material. Violinist Austin Hartman and pianist Richard Ratliff showed a seamless partnership throughout.

Hartman and Ratliff opened the concert, with cellist Dennis McCafferty, in Haydn's Piano Trio in G major. The three displayed well-coordinated lightness of touch, resilience and gracefulness that served the music well. Without overemphasis, they brought out the score's imaginative variety.

The program's other instrumental work involved five UIndy-associated professionals playing a woodwind quintet by Paul Hindemith. "Kleine Kammermusik", op. 24, No. 2, has maximum craftsmanship and minimum charm, like much of the German composer's output.

Over the course of five crisply characterized movements, it has some amusing effects. It must be fun to play. But it is granola-bar music to listen to. Flutist Anne Reynolds, oboist Pamela French, clarinetist Cathryn Gross, hornist Darin Sorley, and bassoonist Mark Ortwein invested their performance with as much charm as the score seems to offer. My takeaway from it was delight in the solid ensemble rapport that typified the whole program.

Four Brahms duets brought together department chair Kathleen Hacker, soprano, and Mitzi Westra, mezzo-soprano, assisted by pianist Elisabeth Hoegberg. The singers blended well, and they never missed a trick expressively. When "Klosterfraeulein" (The young nun) wistfully addresses lambs in springtime, Hacker and Westra were buoyant in sympathy.  The series of joyous rhetorical questions in "Die Boten der Liebe" (The messengers of love) conveyed pure focus on the loved one, carried along by an excess of rapture.

As the temperature plunged outside and flurries approached, it was good to be reminded by such a performance that the season of love and renewal is surely upon us.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

APA Fellow Sean Chen makes first concerto appearance here since winning Cliburn bronze

Launched into prominence by the golden boost of the 2013 American Pianists Association Classical Fellowship, Sean Chen is back in Indianapolis this weekend to indicate — not that anyone needed more evidence — that his victory here was no fluke.

Sean Chen showed his good taste with a reflective Bach encore.
The vehicle is Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, in two Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra performances with German conductor Christoph Konig on the podium at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Chen displayed crisp articulation through the thickets of figuration and octaves in the outer movements, with the addition of expressive insight that seemed to freshen up the familiar work.

His tone in the "Andantino semplice" had a rare refinement for a young player, and the effect was mesmerizing, especially with the contrast offered by the frantic waltz in the middle. It was well-coordinated with scurrying strings by Konig. The finale had a rhythmic liveliness that suited Konig's style as an accompanist, making for hand-in-glove coordination up through the final thrilling bars.

The concert opened with this year's Glick Young Composer's Showcase winner, "Supercell" by Troy Armstrong.  The young Oklahoman's work was rooted in his background in one of the country's prime regions for tornadoes.

For about six minutes, the orchestra swirled with foreboding and devastation. There was astutely managed contrast in the eerie periods of calm between moments of impact.  We could be grateful for the composer's taste in doing something more than producing a frightful noise. There was menace enough in his incorporation of man-made sounds: warning sirens mimicked by a near-the-bridge viola whine. On top of that, it was musically evident that nature was the master — as it is in real life.

Leading up to intermission was that miracle of late Mozart, Symphony No. 41 in C major ("Jupiter"). Konig's approach was quite detailed, but there seemed an overall appreciation of the equal weight the score gives to — let's introduce a couple of other classical gods here — Dionysian and Apollonian qualities. In other words, this masterpiece, especially in the last movement, displays Mozart as a learned, high-minded musician as well as a reveler. "The learned musician" is a phrase associated with Christoph Wolff's much-acclaimed biography of J.S. Bach more than a decade ago. Ideally applied to Bach, it in no way can be read as downplaying the emotional import of Bach's music.  But in the finale of this symphony, Mozart, usually thought of as an instinctive genius deft with deep feelings, deserves that phrase as well.

The finale was given all due glory in Friday's performance. But from the start, Konig had some winning ideas about the piece. The "Allegro vivace" had a seductiveness and sweetness that recalled Mozart's great operatic comedies. The interpretation we heard could almost have had words set to it by Lorenzo Da Ponte, the librettist of "The Marriage of Figaro" and "Cosi fan tutte."

The lightness of mood never meant gliding over intricate detail. Konig made the most of the expressive complexity of the slow movement. After that, the minuet movement was given an affectionate cast. I was reminded of one of the P.D.Q. Bach parodies by Peter Schickele, in which the main theme morphs into the lilting German love song, "Du, du, liegst mir im Herzen."

Then we were ready for the ascent of Olympus in the last movement. In performances like this one, astonishment never ceases. You keep saying to yourself, "I can't believe he just did THAT, and now here comes THIS." Very few pieces one has heard often can so dependably render you slack-jawed with wonder. This is one of them, and so it did in this cloud-capped performance.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Butler Artsfest: Music of the 20th and 21st centuries makes its vital presence felt in festival programming

Last Sunday afternoon at Butler Artsfest, a lucky audience heard a splendid performance of George Crumb's 1974 "Music for a Summer Evening."
The Devil (as lepidopterist) sizes up the fiddling Soldier in Butler production.

But the festival was by no means finished so soon with modern and contemporary works: In the jazz sphere, there will be Donny McCaslin's appearance with the university's jazz ensemble Saturday night. That morning, the Butler Percussion Ensemble, true to the heart of the all-percussion repertoire, will go all modern. Unlike some arts festivals, this one is not wedded to the distant past.

The weekend was heralded Thursday by a program partnering a work by Butler Jordan College of the Arts dean Ronald Caltobiano with Igor Stravinsky's First World War fable, "The Soldier's Tale." Tonight, the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra comes into the spotlight with a program including the premiere of James Aikman's "Triptych: Musical Momentum" and a turn-of-the-century bassoon concerto by Christopher Theofanidis that the ICO has done before. Music director Kirk Trevor will conduct.

I was invited to an ICO rehearsal Thursday morning to become acquainted with the Theofanidis and Aikman works. The process of preparation didn't permit me thorough exposure to either piece. Despite my pleasure in the virtuosity of Martin Kuuskmann, I didn't get much more of an impression of Theofanidis' 1997/2002 Bassoon Concerto than the sense that it is, at least in part, a muscular work. It exploits the solo instrument in all registers while keeping the orchestra busy and occasionally menacing, as if spurring the bassoonist on to ever greater heroics.

James Aikman displays a straightforward orchestral voice in "Triptych."
With Aikman's "Triptych," I had the benefit of following the score and hearing all three movements, though not in performance order. The second movement, "The Particle Garden," features a complicating overlay in the form of prerecorded audio that wasn't used in this rehearsal. Without those sounds supplementing the orchestra's activity, including (the composer said) a children's choir, "The Particle Garden" had a simple open-air lyricism reminiscent of the gentler sections of Aaron Copland's "Red Pony" Suite or his "Down a Country Lane."

The last movement, "Fanfare," struck me as a sophisticated example of building up a fanfare mood without tipping the compositional hand too early. The proportions are great: After a rattling full-orchestra climax, for instance, is brought to the edge of annoyance, there's a relaxed, playful episode for clarinets and bassoons at just the right time. The insertion of contrasting material in long notes toward the climax subtly avoids undercutting the mounting fanfare glory.

Aikman is apparently a composer who doesn't like to contradict himself or struggle with a synthesis: The music always aims at clarity, making a beeline for its stated goal.  Any complexity is apparently designed to help you understand the essential thrust of each movement. In the first movement, a canny application of the variations principle sounded more admirable than what it's applied to: The theme, while useful for Aikman's purposes, seemed too self-effacing, almost inert. I look forward to another hearing of this work someday.

The other new (to me) Butler Artsfest work I heard opened Thursday's concert at the Schrott Center: Caltobiano's 1992 "Lines from Poetry" for solo violin. Davis Brooks' performance had nobility and expressive stature. The work's nine movements were accompanied in this performance by Jordan Munson's video art.

The latter contribution means the lines, mostly from English and American poets, past and present, are presented on screen in jostled, partially faded, teasingly semi-legible forms.  The quotations are heralded, surrounded and sometimes overtaken by colorful abstract imagery, supporting Caltobiano's intention to address the words' atmosphere rather than respond to their literal significance. The visual addition removes some of the etude-like abstractness of the paces Caltobiano puts the violinist through. (The understated appeal of the music may have been too much for someone: loud snoring could be heard beginning in the sixth movement.)

I was enthralled particularly by the fifth movement, with its evocation of an "old Venetian piazza," in which a recitative-like line resembles an aged visitor's favorite half-remembered song from long ago. Also fetching were the  tension and mystery — signaled by a tremolo opening — of the seventh movement's reference to "moving back and forwards through time."  The "call of the morn" in the finale cast a hovering spell through ascending long tones in harmonics.

It's hard to speak highly enough of the performance of "The Soldier's Tale." I've known this work from recordings since my early teens, and am almost absurdly prejudiced in its favor. Fortunately, the performance pleased me in every respect: the fully professional instrumental ensemble, conducted by Stanley DeRusha, couldn't have sounded more fit — though perhaps pushed to the limit in "Ragtime" and "Triumphal Dance" near the end.

With credit to Owen Schaub's direction, the piece's staging was imaginative and consistently supportive of the powerful narrative process: the deluded soldier's falling into the devil's trap. Elysia Rohn made for an engaging Narrator, with Nick Gehrich and Peyton Lustig vividly portraying the fateful struggle between the Soldier and his powerful nemesis. Sarah Tam filled out the cast in the small but poignant role of the Princess.

Six dancers gave elaboration through well-designed movement to Stravinsky's idiosyncratic evocation of three dance forms: Tango, Waltz and Ragtime. They form the healing suite the Soldier offers by way of cure to the king's daughter, thus winning her hand in marriage.

The couple's happiness is short-lived. The story's pessimistic outcome offers the durable moral that the best things about our past and our present are difficult to combine happily at the same time. Hard enough, it's true, but not as impossible as it is once you've made a pact with the Devil. The fact that the grim lesson of "The Soldier's Tale" is so entertaining is simply a bonus.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

'Moses Man' sets to music a family story of deliverance from evil

Handling difficult issues on the musical stage rests on the pop-culture heritage of a genre once called "musical comedy."

There have been many examples of earnestness in the genre since Rodgers and Hammerstein shocked 1949 audiences in "South Pacific" with a bitter indictment of prejudice in the song "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught." And of course, a generation later,  there's the onset of a whole society's moral ruin that pervades "Cabaret."

Imagine the difficulty of staying on the side of good taste, not to mention upholding the expectations of entertainment, by pitching your creative tent in the middle of the most famous episode of mass horror in modern history — and singing about it.

Deborah Haber has brought to light her family history of struggle to emerge from the Holocaust in "Moses Man," a new musical given a staged reading at Indiana Repertory Theatre Wednesday night.
The cast of the staged reading  at IRT Wednesday made a good case for "Moses Man."
With the assistance of composer Casey Filiaci, she has bravely attempted to make sobering entertainment out of a story mixing both heroism and pathos — and shot through with music. Her father's resourcefulness and courage, and the inspiration it offered to those around him, is the work's vital center.

"Moses Man" is an old-fashioned piece of work, thankfully uninfected by the influence of rock. The staged reading didn't permit any indication of choreography, which is a more surprising sacrifice. But I wouldn't want to rule out dancing in the fully staged show on the basis of what I saw on the IRT's Upperstage. There just didn't seem to be an obvious place for that staple of Broadway entertainment.

Some slide projections and sound design bring forward the world of Germany and Austria in the late 1930s and during World War II, but the complicated story is told largely through onstage song and dialogue. Dramatic presentation is given continuity through narration by the hero, recalling his tortuous journey from resistance to escape as an Austrian Jew. Opa (Mark Goetzinger, in a winning performance that avoided being cloyingly folksy) looks back on his pluck and luck, gradually impressing his granddaughter. His younger self, Avi, was played with resolute flair by Eric J. Olson.

The singing strength of most of the cast and the way it thoroughly inhabited the characters, despite the necessary burden of script notebooks, offered a presumably well-realized indication of Haber and Filiaci's hopeful project. Given that it is a work in progress, what follows is a series of sketchy impressions rather than a review.

To begin with, uneasiness about how to lighten the story is evident in some of the songs. Trying to allow for deliberate irony, I still had problems with Avi's Gestapo interrogators' song, the melody of which has clear Jewish characteristics, but without being mocking. A song mostly zeroing in on the danger Avi faces after the Anschluss needed a melody alien to everything Avi knew. When the lyrics morph into chipper Germans declaring how they hope to start World War II, the attempt at humor seemed strained.

In the second act, it was surprising to find "A Spot of Tea," a goofy, upbeat British Major's song (about life in the African refugee camp he heads) reprised twice. Perhaps the camp supervisor was really so clueless and insular in Haber's father's experience, but this song seems a weak parody of  a British music-hall castoff or a distant relative of Gilbert and Sullivans, "The flowers that bloom in the spring, tra--la." (An example of strong parody was the delightful Afro-pop description of the Jewish refugees' strange new environment, "Jungle Living.")

Filiaci's musical influences seem to be Bock and Harnick (in adapting Jewish folk and cabaret music), Rodgers and Hammerstein (in the sentimental, reflective numbers) and Kurt Weill, particularly one sardonic song in a bluesy tango idiom. Stephen Sondheim's habit of side-slipping from one tonality to another, sometimes within a song's basic structure, was conspicuous in an extended number for Freddy, the doomed brother of Avi's wife, Lia. It was performed with wistfulness and fire (applied as needed) by Scot Greenwell.

That was one of two or three numbers showcasing characters in the manner of the Italian operatic tradition of the scena, a solo displaying different, sometimes conflicting moods through varying tempos, meters and melodic material. The granddaddy of this sort of thing in the American musical theater is Billy Bigelow's soliloquy in "Carousel." That was ground-breaking, but its descendants sometimes seem a show-stopping excuse for creators' failure to come up with a memorable, concise song that expresses different sides of a character without leaping from one expressive plateau to another. In Freddy's case, for instance, a couple of short songs, one of which would cover his optimistic letters home, might have been preferable to this scena.

As for act finales, sometimes crucial to a show's success, the stirring first-act song, "Turning the Turnstile," brought the action nicely to a head by focusing on the anxiety and determination of the targeted population of Nazi-occupied Europe to find new life elsewhere. The second-act finale, while rousing, was sentimentally focused on the promise of America and liberty (symbolized by the famous statue in New York harbor).  In light of the dubious record of the U.S. in saving Europe's Jews, the song seems a knee-jerk appeal to American patriotism.  Also, its paean to liberty is an odd emphasis for a story about simple survival. Safety for himself and his people is clearly Avi's object for most of the show, principally in a Palestine that was not yet available to Jews as a secure homeland.

But popular art finds it hard to tout safety over liberty, which wears a nimbus ideal for show biz. For all the attention art trains on life's basics,  certain priorities generally get overlooked. "Safety" doesn't let people leave the theater with lifted hearts. It's a parallel difficulty to Bertolt Brecht's famous pronouncement, "Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral" —  After you chow down, then you can think about morality. Similarly, after you are safe from danger, then you can
enjoy the benefits of liberty.

"Moses Man" has a tangential relationship to liberty, it's true, but it's really about the less glamorous struggle to be safe from harm. Perhaps, with judicious tweaking, that quest will someday be enough  to make the show attractive to Broadway.