The People in the Picture is not the strongest way to end the Broadway season. I certainly didn’t hate it or have a horrible time, but I think that the way it’s executed doesn’t tell this particular story particularly well. In it, former star of the Polish Yiddish theater Raisel (Donna Murphy) recounts her story to her appreciative granddaughter.
If book and lyric writer Iris Dart (author of the novel Beaches) had kept her focus on Raisel’s life in the theater, this would have been a much more interesting evening. Instead, she creates something of a soap opera out of her descent into dementia, and a melodrama out of her relationship with her daughter, and neither of these subplots feel genuine or moving.
While there is a compelling reason to tell the history of the Polish Yiddish Theatre, we get only the most generalized wash of that here. Also, of course the story of the Holocaust needs to be told as fully as it can, but it is given the sketchiest outline here. The show is at its best when it looks steadily either at antisemitism or Jewish art-making, and weakest when it shifts away from them. The two strongest justifications for telling this story get short shrift, while its most mundane aspects hog the music and the stage time.
That music, by rock and roll legend Mike Stoller and his protege Artie Butler, is mostly terrific, if not as pungent as their best work. Murphy gives an impassioned, committed and skillful performance as Raisel, switching ages and decades with effortless ease. She is given strong support by a terrific cast – Lewis J. Stadlen is particularly good as deadpan comedian Avram Krinsky – so it’s just unfortunate that this often tuneful musical on a worthy subject never quite gels.
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