Saturday, July 11, 2015

Review: An Incredible Journey of Hope

There are countless tales of survival during the Holocaust. They've provided such rich material for stage, screen, and page. While the facts may be disparaging, it's the sagas that defy the odds that make for beautiful stories. Moses Man, with book and lyrics by Deborah Haber and music by Casey Filiaci, is an incredible true story about an incredibly dark time in history.
Moses Man follows the real life nine-year journey of writer Deborah Haber’s parents on their search for a new home as the Nazis began to control parts of Europe. The story begins in Vienna as the treatment of Jewish people becomes poorer. Avi, an optimistic young man, rallies friends to seek refuge in safer Palestine. With his plan in motion, papers and documents in hand, plans are altered as Nazi occupation forces Avi and his new bride Lia to lands unimaginable. To tell this story, Haber employs the memory play device of Avi, now called Opa, recanting his journey to his grandson Moshe on the night of his grand exhibition. Though Moshe inexplicably hasn't heard this story, the great tale is brought to life before his eyes. The journey Opa tells is a long and epic one. Haber is smart by only giving the audience the important moments and, for the most part, finding optimism within the darkness. It is a very personal play about family. Haber finds ways to allow the audience into her family but at times it felt as if the desire for certain family member's’ stories got in the way causing unneeded material. With the memory device present, the musical is about Avi and his journey. The moments, and songs, he's not present can be reduced or cut to allow for an action-filled 90 minute adventure. With an intermission, the momentum halts, taking some time to regain speed. With that, swapping the arrival of Avi and Lei in Cyprus with the toe-taping “Opa” can aid in this. The score by Casey Filiaci was a sweeping soundscape of regional tones, something that was a brilliant touch. Filiaci paid homage to the sounds of their homeland and the places Avi and friends journeyed to. That being said, when the score had shades of Sondheim, it felt recycled. The majority of the music felt present in the piece with a few unfortunate exceptions, including “And Mama Needs Cherries”.
photo by Russ Rowland
To bring this piece to life, a well-rounded and talented company brought hope to the stage. As Avi, sweet-voiced Oliver Thornton carried the weight of the world, leading and captivating as he did. Thornton, a West End veteran, is a welcome addition to the New York theatrical family. Kevin McGuire as Opa was a wonderful narrator, active and attentive throughout. Zachary Clause and Lisa Rothauser offered sensational solos, giving truth and humanity through their exceptional voices. Sadly, there were two weak performances in integral roles that altered the show. Tess DeFlyer and Evan Daves as Lia and Moshe were not as strong as their counterparts. DeFlyer’s Lia seemed to not quite comprehend the stakes of the circumstances with a thin voice to boot. While the character was young, her portrayal was na├»ve. Daves on the other hand was overly affected with every story Opa gave. Moshe and Opa needed to blend into the scenery at moments of the piece, allowing the story to take center stage, but Daves become a bit of a distraction at times.
Director Michael Bush brought a keen eye to inventive staging. It was simple yet theatrical, evoking the constant movement of the characters. With a brilliant and cohesive scenic design by Paul dePoo, Bush used the crates, with their location prints, to his advantage, creating stunning stage pictures. Bush did run into some issues with the script. First, the dialects were all over the place, stemming form the Avi and Opa discrepancy. Avi and the Austrians adopted American accents. But Opa kept an Austrian accent. Then any other foreigners maintained their native dialect. When it came to the memory place device, there were some moments that Bush took Opa and Moshe offstage. Regardless of the beautiful ballad, their presence was needed as it was already established. Additionally, having Moshe sing felt dramaturgically incorrect. Moshe is not necessarily a participant, he is an audience member who "knows nothing".
Moses Man is a Holocaust musical of hope. And there is such hope in a life post NYMF. The key is discovering a way to sell this show with the great optimism it contains rather than the history that surrounds it.