Book by Peter Ullian
Lyrics by Len Schiff
Music by Joel Derfner
Directed by Lisa Portes
Musical Direction by Mike Pettry
At Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, Chicago
Haunting musical drama gives voices to the victims of the Czech ghetto Theresienstadt.
During World War II, the Nazis used the transit concentration camp in Trezin (“Theresienstadt” in German) near Prague to showcase their humane treatment of Jews to the Red Cross and to the world. Besides cleaning up the camp, the Nazis utilized the camp’s inmates, themselves mostly academic and artistic Jews, to make a propaganda film and to stage a musical story to demonstrate the tranquil life of the newly created Jewish city. The visit by the Red Cross actually happened on June 23, 1944. The Signs of Life is a musical drama that depicts artists and thespians as the prepared for the Red Cross visit by using the stage and artist’s drawings to alert the Red Cross to what is actually happening in Theresienstadt.
With a hauntingly beautiful score (by Joel Derfner) with movingly valid lyrics (by Len Schiff), Signs of Life is populated by representative artistic characters including a flamboyant singer/director Kurt Gerard (Jason Collins), a gay sketch artist (Nathan Cooper), a poet/philosopher Simon Muller (Matt Edmonds), a German woman, Berta (Lara Filip), a grandfather, Jacob Schumann (Michael Joseph Mitchell), his granddaughter, Lorelei Schumann (Megan Long), and her brother Wolfie Schumann (Brennan Dougherty).
We experience this group as they rehearse for the stage showcase as well as seeing the artists creating and hiding their drawings from the Nazis. We also meet the camp Commander Rahm (James Rank) and his assistant Officer Heindel (Doug Pawlik) as they use cunning, charm and brute force to deceive the Red Cross as well as keeping order in the camp.
Theatrically, mounting a music about the Holocaust is both tricky and daunting. But with tasteful, haunting music sung with deep emotions using rich harmonies and subdued tones, Signs of Life works as a profound depiction of the reaction and determination of the artists to “tell the truth” through their art (whether on stage or in drawings) as to what happened in the camp. The bravery of the inmates and the cruelty of the guards is shown yet the spirit of humanity of the inmates shines through. We see talented folks rise up to defy their torturers as they can through deception.
The songs are a mixture of Yiddish styles with European cabaret art with several deeply emotional anthems and ballads. “Home Again Soon” sung wonderfully by Lara Filip, Simon’s “By Your Side,” and the ensemble song “A City for the Jews” were among the highlights of the tasteful score. It is noteworthy and valid that the pain, anguish and hope of the inmates use set to music. How fitting for artists to express their trauma.
I also do believe that in the shows major misstep was the tastelessly inappropriate anthem that the Nazi sings near the end of the show – “Good” -where Heindel regrets that the Nazis were not able to finish their “Final Solution” to the Jewish problem. At the zenith of the dramatic arch, letting a Nazi lament his cause is reprehensible and demeaning. Never give a voice to such evil. I’d cut that song immediately.
Once that song is removed Signs of Life will emerge as a fine, artful musical drama that aptly give a voice to the terrible events that occurred at Theresienstadt and other camps by the Nazis. The cast gave heartfelt performances especially by Jason Collins, Lara Filip and Megan Long. 13 year old Brennan Dougherty gave a mature performance.
Taken as a whole, Signs of Life (sans the song “Good”) is a moving, tasteful and besutiful dedication to the suffering of the Jews as well as a tribute to their subtle defiance. The spirit of humanity and the message of hope for the survivors is wonderfully presented. This is an important art piece that begs to be witnessed.
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: September 26, 2013
For more info checkout the Signs Of Life page at theatreinchicago.com
At Victory Gardens Biograph theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago, IL, call 773-871-3000, www.victorygardens.org, tickets $45 – $65, Wednesdays at 2 & 7:30 pm, Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 5 & 8: 30 pm, Sundays at 3 pm, running time is 2 hours with intermission, through October 27, 2013