Erika Amato, Wilson Bridges, Jason Collins, Nic Cory, Gabe Green, Patricia Noonan, Allen E. Read, Stuart Zagnit, Kurt Zischke
Signs of Life is a new musical that explores life in the Terezin ghetto, which was set us as Nazi propaganda town designed to show how well the regimen was treating the Jews. It treats this subject matter respectfully, but not solemnly – allowing many different emotions slip through, not just anger and despair.
The story revolves around a talented young painter, Lorelei, and her journey from Prague to the Nazi show town and Jewish artists ghetto, Terezin. The historical story of Terezin is rarely told; it was a settlement designed to show outsiders (including the Red Cross) how well the Nazis were treating the Jewish people. And they were treated well compared to the concentration camps. The truth of their confinement and what happened to the Jews that were sent East slowly dawns on the people of this city. Much of the show explores how they try to get this information out to the world.
Patricia Noonan plays Lorelei, the emotional center of the story. Journeying with her is her brother, her grandfather, her best friend and a love interest. Ms. Noonan handles the emotional center of this show well, bringing us along with her on the journey. All of the cast members are very good, but three stand out in excellence.
Erika Amato plays Berta, a Jewish wife dumped by her German businessman husband. She wears her emotions openly and sings with a voice that tears at your heart. Her portrayal of Berta is aching. Jason Collins plays Kurt, a jaded Jewish cabaret star who finds his inner strength as his time in Terezin progresses. Wilson Bridges as Simon, Loreleis love interest, is also an amazing talent. Mr. Bridges voice is wonderful and his acting is great, however he is hampered by a part that, as written, sends him stammering long after this bit of humor has worn out its welcome.
And this milking of stage business is systemic of the main problem of the show. It feels bloated in many places, and that weighs down the piece, which already struggles to maintain a fine line between humorous light-heartedness and Nazi persecution. The writers, Peter Ullian (book), Len Schiff (lyrics) and Joel Derfner (music), acknowledge that even in Terezin there are moments of happiness, love and hope, as there will be wherever young people are together. And this togetherness is the one luxury that is afforded the inmates of Terezin. But for every moment of happiness, the play has to show two or three times as much bleakness, as if to remind us constantly that this is the time of the Holocaust.
Particular kudos have to be given to Alexis Distler. His set designs are beautifully understated and reveal themselves slowly, mirroring the characters emotional growth. Jeremy Dobrish directs this relatively big show in a small space with expertise, fully taking advantage of the knowledge the audience brings in with them. Signs of Life brings a unique look at a forgotten period in time; despite a few flaws, it is an enjoyable journey.