Brundibar & But the Giraffe
nytheatre.com review by Ross Peabody
May 5, 2006
Brundibar, the new version of Hans Krasa's opera for children by Tony Kushner and Maurice Sendak, and its curtain raiser But the Giraffe, manage to tread the difficult line of entertaining adults in the audience, while inspiring the kids (and some of those adults, as well) to squeal with glee, encouraging along the way a very special sense of thoughtful fun. Under the disarming umbrella of production designer Sendak’s imagination and supported by Kushner’s finely tuned libretto, the pieces never condescend to their genre or audience. Both manage to have something for anyone that might be in attendance.
The opera for children, with music by Krasa and original libretto by Adolf Hoffmeister, was composed in the years leading up to World War II, smuggled out of the Czechoslovakian ghetto, and performed by the children imprisoned at the Nazi’s “model ghetto” at Terezin (many of whom were later interred at Auschwitz). It follows the story of young Pepicek (Aaron Simon Gross) and his younger sister Aninku (Devynn Pedell) as they enter town to find milk for their dying mother. Once in town, they find that, without money, milk is scarce. Taking their cue from Brundibar (Euan Morton), the town’s organ grinder, whose boisterous music earns him great wealth from everyone that passes by, the children decide to sing for their milk money. The brash and loud Brundibar runs the children off with his frightful manner, leaving them scared and alone in the city streets that night. Protected and aided by a dog, a cat, and a sparrow, Pepicek and Aninku gather together all of the town’s children to outsing Brundibar, gaining the ears of the townsfolk, earning money for their milk, and ousting Brundibar from the town.
As an allegorical story about the weak and oppressed unifying and rising up to fight the bullying oppressors, Brundibar is pretty much by-the-book (but what allegory isn’t, to some extent?). In Kushner and Sendak’s production, under the vibrant direction of Tony Taccone, the little fable takes on a fantastical and surprisingly sharp-edged life. Anyone familiar with Sendak’s work in children’s literature (Where the Wild Things Are, most notably), will recognize elements of the production design and thrill to the effect that those elements have live onstage. Sendak’s work always carries a certain unnamable, subconscious dread to go with its generous helpings of kid-friendly, uplifting adventure, and things are no different here. From the face of the sun beaming knowingly over Pepicek and Aninku, to the shape of their mother forming in the moon as they sing of her, the stage lives in a world with firm roots in dream, but never strays too far from the reality of the play, and the circumstances of its original production.
Costume designer Robin Shane and set designer Kris Stone (who also worked with Sendak on the production design) both achieve this effect to phenomenal success. Stone’s set resembles any number of town sets that you may have seen over the years, as translated by Sendak’s mind. With his perfect replication of Sendak’s illustrations, complete with a slightly skewed perspective adjustment, it feels like walking into one of Sendak’s books. Shane completes that physical picture by skillfully exaggerating a realistic look to dreamlike proportions. From the children’s ultra colorful peasant garb to Brundibar’s massive carnival military uniform (twice the size of Morton’s compact body, I swear) to the three cartoon-like animals, everything looks just right, but just wrong enough to leave you unbalanced and full of glee.
Kushner’s libretto treads a similar line. Without abandoning his familiar polemic, the playwright has changed the language of it to adopt the rhyming, simpler frame of the children’s opera, and, one could argue that he, happily enough, has found exactly the right children’s opera and collaborators to do this with. This is a light-handed Kushner that we see in Brundibar. We still see calls for unity against abusive power, but it’s framed in lyrics like “its fun to lend a hand” and “friends make us strong.” In fact his understanding of the children’s plight is downright touching, right down to the idealistic idea, not only that milk will save their dying mother, but that milk can make everything better.
Gross and Pedell, playing the two children, lend themselves to this kind of earnest idealism. As the older of the two, Gross leads Pedell about the stage, and genuinely seems to be playing older brother to the frail seeming nine-year-old. They both throw themselves into the roles admirably, keeping up, in song and in performance, with the older actors around them. And those actors are nothing to sneeze at. The ensemble works spectacularly well together and there’s not a low point in the bunch, including the collection of children from Rosie’s Broadway Kids program. The standout, though, is Euan Morton. Quickly becoming the best actor in American theatre without a passport, his charisma alone makes the blustering, bullying, evil Brundibar an instant favorite of the audience, and he knows how to milk it for everything its worth.
But the Giraffe, a curtain raiser to Brundibar, is an animal of a completely different sort. Framed as a biography of the original play, it’s a short morality tale basically about a young girl learning the importance of selflessness in the face of things larger than herself. It’s an interesting but uneven piece that gives a kind of fictionalized version of the smuggling of the children’s opera out of Prague and the familial events leading up to it. Danielle Fried as the girl is a fantastic young performer and carries much of the piece nobly. But the Giraffe is a very straightforward short one-act that prepares the mind for the main act without preparing the imagination, leaving Brundibar to reach that much further to achieve its goals.