There are "Signs of Life" in the ambitious and richly produced new commercial musical of that title, a celebration of the courage, talents and collective will to live of the Jewish residents of the Nazi-controlled ghetto Theresienstadt, located in what was then Czechoslovakia. That vitality flows from two sources. One is the quite lovely score, composed by Joel Derfner with lyrics by Len Schiff, a song suite that quite beautifully evokes the way life must go on, even in a hell made all the more heinous by the sops of normalcy dangled by the devils running the place. The other is from the great appeal of the arts-loving characters — Theresienstadt had many artists among its residents — whose spirits are the heartbeat of this honorable labor of love from a producer, Virginia Spiegel Criste, whose relatives were there.
Alas, the book by Peter Ullian — the storytelling — is another matter. Sketchy, banal and meandering in its plotting, it seriously limits what can be achieved here and most certainly does not do justice to this beautiful score. These characters are drawn well by Ullian; the group of residents includes a pair of young lovers (played by Megan Long and Matt Edmonds), an older theatrical type (Jason Collins), a grandfatherly leader (Michael Joseph Mitchell), a kid (Brennan Dougherty), a Jewish woman who has denied her heritage (Lara Filip) and a maverick artist who refuses to compromise (Nathan Cooper). But the main story here, which involves the courageous, real-life decision by these residents to represent artistically the truth about the inhuman conditions in the ghetto (as distinct from the propaganda being sold to the Red Cross by the Nazis), does not track at crucial junctures. You never feel like you see this group decide to take this leap. You do not feel the weight of its consequence, and one major plot involving a potential betrayal just does not pay off as it should. The book lacks narrative drive and enough tension, despite the inherent life-and-death stakes of the subject.
And, frankly, there are a few of those what-were-they-thinking moments, most notably the decision to give the eleven o'clock musical number to a singing Nazi. This choice, made more egregious by the way-over-the-top performance from Doug Pawlik, is ridiculous. Granted, one might be tempted to humanize one of the guards in a show such as this. And by all means, in a musical everyone usually has to sing. But to offer up a reflective ballad, right at the emotional peak of the show, wherein the man laments the apparent collapse of the so-called Final Solution? Are you kidding?
The only time I ever want to hear a Nazi sing about anything is if Mel Brooks is writing the lyrics and rendering such a devil absurd. Who gives a darn about such a man's feeling? The very memory makes me shudder. Cut that thing, I say, by tomorrow night.
"Signs of Life" has already had an off-Broadway run, but this new Chicago production at the Biograph (which is not a Victory Gardens project) features revisions and a new production, directed locally by Lisa Portes. The production, in most ways, matches the divisions in the show. Many of the musical numbers are very poignant (for serious fans of serious news musicals, they make the piece worth seeing). Portes has cast some fine singers and these moments feel truthful and well-earned: Long, who is at the heart of the show, is earnest, warm and honest, and Edmonds and Mitchell offer stellar support.
The scenes are more of a mixed bag. At the top of the show, which features a simple but viable setting from Brian Sidney Bembridge, it feels like Collins, whose performance initially is super-sized, has misjudged the size of the venue, but the actor grows on you as he settles down. Clearly, he feels this role deeply. One can't help but respect that feeling.
So it goes throughout: some moments work very nicely, some lay there awkwardly, often felled by the clunky book. This was no easy assignment for Portes and her cast: it's an epic story to tell with just nine actors, two of which have to play the forces of darkness. One alternative might have been a more progressive, metaphoric, fast-paced staging that somehow got past the triteness of the prose and focused on the strengths of this piece: honest actors playing courageous, intensely empathetic characters, singing of their pain, confusion and determination to smuggle out the truth.
When: Through Oct. 27
Where: Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Tickets: $45-$65 at 773-871-3000 at victorygardens.org