Sometimes bad shows happen to good people. Case in point, The People in the Picture, currently performed by the Roundabout Theater Company at Studio 54. I’m quite sure that Iris Rainer Dart (book and lyrics) and the musical team of Mike Stoller and Artie Butler all thought, “well, this will be the feel-good Holocaust musical of the year.” Oy.
To be sure, there is much to like in this ultimately flat-footed show. Donna Murphy is a marvel, flipping back-and-forth between young, vibrant woman and little old lady at (literally) the drop of a hat. Her Tony nomination is richly deserved. Chip Zien, Hal Robinson, Lewis J. Stadlen and (a largely wasted) Joyce Van Patten are all capable and pleasing performers. The staging is inventive, the sets and effects quite impressive and when the jokes work, they are funny enough.
And yet. And yet, The People in the Picture is a wasted opportunity. The show is about an elderly woman (Murphy), retelling the harrowing story of her life with a group of travelling players/comedians called the Warsaw Gang in Poland during World War II. The theme hammered home repeatedly is that life is hard, often horrific, but it can be redeemed to a large degree through art.
This, of course, is a theme tailored to warm the heart of your correspondent, but if only The People in the Picture was accomplished enough in its own artistry to carry off the premise. The songs are largely forgettable. A comedic number about demonic possession by a song-and-dance-man dybbuk is almost something like Mel Brooks’ The Exorcist, but never quite that good, and without the manic comedic inventiveness necessary to become a show-stopper. Hollywood Girls, sung by most of the company that make up The Warsaw Gang, is orchestrated in a real 1930s manner, but never quite sparkles in the way true period songs do. The only other memorable number worth mentioning among the 22 that make up the show is Saying Goodbye, which has that canned, ossified Broadway sound so prized by Jonathan Schwartz.
The book is no help. Pity poor Nicole Parker, who plays Murphy’s grown daughter. Supposedly a comedy writer for television, Parker has not one funny line in the play. And the mother-daughter conflict that drives most of the second act melodrama is never believable for a moment. (I will leave the surprise for viewers about to see the show; but be warned – it never really works.)
Dart has set out a formidable task – how to make a moving story about the Holocaust, include intergenerational conflict to keep it contemporary, and stick in as many jokes as possible. This may be the finest Holocaust musical comedy to date, but that is rather like creating the world’s best sardine-flavored ice cream. It’s quite an achievement, in its way, but do we really want one?
If all of this sounds harsh, I hasten to add that The People in the Picture is not without its charms. In addition to Murphy and some other cast members, there are affecting moments of both pathos and humor. And, unlike many truly terrible shows that have great Broadway success, The People in the Picture does not include fog machines, is not an adaptation of a movie, was not created by Disney, does not have human spiders smashing against walls, and is not based on a record album or retired rock group. Sure, it’s junk, but it’s original junk.
If you already have a ticket, by all means go. As the Warsaw Group might say, “so, what’s not to like?”