Sunday, June 19, 2011

theatre review THE PEOPLE IN THE PICTURE- Broadway, June 17

The People in the Picture is a new musical that didn't fare well with the critics.  It ends its limited three month Broadway run today and we caught it this past Friday.  I don't know if it is because we went in with low expectations due to those not so good reviews, or what, but we both thought it was a good musical with an interesting story line, a serviceable score and some excellent performances, including Donna Murphy giving yet another amazing performance.

Murphy with Resheff, and Innvar in the background
The plot of the musical is set in l977 with many flashbacks to the 30's and 40's.   At the center of the story is Murphy.  She lives with her daughter and granddaughter and is starting to forget things.  Her granddaughter Jenny (a very effective Rachel Resheff) has been tape recording "Bubbie's" memories of her days when she was a star in the Yiddish Theatre.  Bubbie knows it is important for the stories to be preserved so they can be passed down to the next generation, but there are some secrets in Bubbie's past which she prefers not be remembered.   Her daughter, Red (Nicole Parker, giving a strong and effective performance), is often at odds with her mother and thinks it might be best for her mother to move to an assisted living building, but Jenny wants her grandmother around. 

From left- Gemignani, Zien, Murphy, Van Patten and Stadlen
Also always present are the various people in the theatre troop that Raisel (Bubbie) worked with who have already passed away, but are there, waiting for Raisel to join them as well as to help Raisel remember her past. 

Director Leonard Foglia has assembled a nice group of actors to portray the Yiddish theatre troop.  Chip Zien and Lewis J. Stadlen are the comic duo, Christopher Innvar is the troop's director and Murphy's love interest, Joyce Van Patten is the older actress who always mentions her days when she was the ingenue and Alexander Gemignani is the troop's romantic lead who has some secrets of his own.   They all are used effectively in both the flashback scenes as well as the modern ones and all have nice solo moments to shine.  The ensemble plays various smaller roles and I really liked seeing Louis Hobson, who played the Doctor in the Original Broadway cast of Next to Normal, playing Bubbie's doctor in this show.  He once again gives an effective and nuanced performance.

Resheff and Parker - note the large picture frame set pieces
 in the background.
The use of the various characters, and the various time periods, might seem like a confusing one, but Foglia effectively stages the production with transitional elements that don't make the production clunky when it shifts periods.  Murphy, who is the only actor to have to portray the same character at two different ages, is simply astounding in her portrayal.   There are many times when she shifts between the ages of her character in just a few seconds and you always believe she is either about 30 or about 70, simply with the way she carries herself, her voice and her actions.   Sure, a pair of glasses and a grey wig help, but Murphy pulls this difficult task off in yet another example of her skills as an actress.  She did receive a Tony nomination for her efforts.

The libretto and lyrics for The People in the Picture are by Iris Rainer Dart, best known as the author of the novel "Beaches" with and music by Mike Stoller (of Leiber and Stoller fame, who's music is the basis of the musical revue Smokey Joe's Café) and Artie Butler.

I liked how set designer Riccardo Hernandez used large picture frames and frame pieces to literally "frame" the action and scenes, after all the show is about the people in the picture.   The costumes by Ann Hould-Wald perfectly evoked the various periods of the show.  Choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler was a little too stylized for my taste and some of the dance movements for the act two opening portion didn't seem to fit with the time period.

Sure, the book might be a little melodramatic or schmaltzy in parts, but the dialogue never rang false.  Both the modern dilemma of what to do with a parent who is starting to forget things, or the actions of a theatre troop trying to put their best foot forward when they have Nazism breathing down their necks are effectively dramatized.   And while I may not remember that much of the score a couple of days after seeing the production, I do remember the moving performance that Murphy gave as well as the character in her character's life and the struggles she had to go through to service the horrible events that happened to her.   Even though this musical didn't fare well with NY critics, I do believe this show with see a healthy life in regional theatres for years to come.

Highlights from this production -

Murphy talks about the show -

1 comment:

  1. Hi Gil, I've sent you two e-mails, one late last night and another this morning, and both bounced back, so I'm in your comment section again. Can you get in touch? 812.333.2390

    Now, I'll comment on your post. I'm not at all familiar with this show. The only connection I have is that I saw Donna Murphy in a Star Trek movie. Star Trek movies are their own thing, so I won't say much about the quality of the film, but I was stuck by her presence. I think Patrick Stewart is incredibly talented and Donna Murphy was every bit his match.

    The subject of a parent who is entering the darkness of dementia hits home with me. I've been through that, though it was milder in my case than with many.

    So, thanks for your review. I learned something, as I do every time I visit your blog.