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.

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