Friday, April 27, 2018

Holocaust Musical!

The People in the Picture
Guggenheim Entertainment
April 26, 2018

You don't really go to a Holocaust musical expecting a fun time, but with The People in the Picture, you get it: laughs, hutzpah, lively music and dance. If it weren't for the damn Nazis it would be a merry evening all around. Guggenheim Entertainment's production of Iris Rainer Dart's 2011 Broadway musical (she of Beaches fame), is tightly performed, strong-voiced, raucous, and touching in all the right ways.

The setup is everything, and here Dart wisely sets her focus narrowly: on Raisel, a Warsaw vaudevillean who survived the Nazis and lives in 1970s New York with her daughter and granddaughters, Red and Jenny Martin. Musically speaking, Raisel's old troupe, the Warsaw Gang, provides an excellent excuse for some lively jazz/klezmer numbers, like the opening "Bread and Theatre." This by legendary hit-writer Mike Stoller, who co-wrote the music with Artie Butler. Another fun device is the time gap. Nothing like a klezmer band performing Stevie Wonder funk vamps to signal a return to the '70s.

Not that bittersweetness is out of the question - it is, in fact, the lingua franca of the story - but humor is a constant companion. The true meat of the story comes not in the familiar fascist dangers, but in an intriguing question: what happens after you do whatever's needed to survive? Where other narratives focus on the horrors of WWII, this one centers on the disruption of families and culture. The second act brings a situation that is astounding in its sheer dilemmic tension. Everybody's right, and there is absolutely no good solution.

Natalie Schroeder, Susan Gundunas, Stephen Guggenheim,
Iris Rainer Dart, Emma Berman and Julia Wade.
A unique aspect of this production is the presence of many former and current opera singers. There's something very reassuring about this, knowing that the performers have all the notes they need, and a high level of understanding about crafting a song. Stephen Guggenheim, who sang tenor roles with the San Jose and San Francisco operas, plays the nice guys: Moishe, a gay performer who marries Raisel to save her the stigma of an illegitimate pregnancy, and fellow '70s TV writer Marvin, Red's colleague and boyfriend. Guggenheim projects a palpable mensch quality, and uses that ringing tenor to accentuate moments both dramatic and comedic. (He's also the musical director.)

Playing Red is Julia Wade, a former Opera San Jose soprano who went on to New York and a recording career in inspirational music. With a mere thirty-year gap between reviews of her singing (!), I can say that her instrument has developed a divine richness, from wine to sherry. In Stoller's "Now and Then," her phrasing is thoughtful and heart-rending, in a way that perhaps only a classically trained singer can execute. I also enjoyed her '70s wardrobe, which costume designer Julie Engelbrecht apparently stole from the Mary Tyler Moore show.

The straight line-punch line duo of Krinsky and Pinsker (Jim Ambler and Brian Watson) is priceless, as are their harmonies on Butler's "Remember Who You Are." And Natalie Schroeder plays Jenny with a swagger and energy equal to her adult cohorts.

This all leads to Susan Gundunas, who as Raisel is just brilliant. Gundunas was with Opera San Jose in the '90s, and I distinctly remember a heartbreaking performance of Tosca's "Vissi d'arte" that left me thinking, This woman can act! Perhaps the most amazing moments in the show are when she ages herself, from the '40s to the '70s, merely by changing the set of her face, the stiffness of her movements, and adding a Polish accent. It's downright Houdinian. She also demonstrates a unique ability to ditch the opera voice completely when it comes to the vaudeville numbers. Her performance of the Dybbuk number, in which she is possessed by a Jewish demon, is a glorious bit of physical/vocal humor. Later, she interrupts Butler's "Ich, Uch, Feh," a tribute to guttural communication, with screams of anguish, creating a moment that epitomizes the stark contrast of humor and horror everpresent in the show.

The six-piece klezmer band is awesome (and if you're going to get the klezmer groupies, clearly you need to play clarinet, Asaf Ophir). The choreography, created by Shannon Guggenheim, is delivered by the cast with great energy (I love the offbeat stomps of "Bread and Theater"), but also with the impression that they've all been dancing together for years. The new 3Below space - formerly the Camera 3 Cinemas - is warm and intimate, with a couple of unique advantages. You can park upstairs in the garage and never even leave the building, and you can eat popcorn during the show!

Through May 13 at 3Below Theaters, 288 S. Second Street, San Jose. $45-$58., 408/404-7711.

Michael J. Vaughn is a thirty-year opera critic, author and painter. His books Operaville and Gabriella's Voice are available at He sang in the San Jose State Concert Choir with Julia Wade and Stephen Guggenheim.


  1. Cannot wait to see this show! But maybe don't title it Holocaust Musical! Sounds odd.

  2. That was a joke the producer made, so I stole it. I thought it reflected the unusual combination that the show presents. The principals use humor, music and vaudeville to battle the terrors going on all around them.