There’s no questioning the intentions of those behind “Haven,” a musical about a group of Holocaust refugees brought to America, but all the good intentions in the world can’t make for a good musical. And “Haven” is simply a bad musical all around — not much more than a deluge of righteous indignation drowning the audience in theatrical cliches.
The story is based on the non-fiction book by Ruth Gruber, who, working for Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, was sent to Europe in 1944 to escort a thousand WWII refugees to America, where they were kept at a fort in Oswego, N.Y., for a year and a half in an odd sort of political limbo. During that time, Ruth battled the Washington bureaucracy and prevailing anti-Semitism to keep the refugees from being sent back “home” as soon as the war ended. Eventually, she prevailed, and the refugees were granted a permanent “haven” in America. Until Gruber’s book was adapted into a CBS miniseries earlier this year, the episode remained an obscure footnote in Holocaust history.
This story is an intriguing one, but it has some inherent flaws as drama; the main characters are passive participants in the action — the dramatic events are happening in the corridors of power and on the battlefields — and the story begins with the refugees getting on a ship and escaping from the Nazis. It’s hard thereafter to consider the obstacles confronting them quite worthy of this degree of melodrama.
Probably a better idea would have been to allow more humor in, and the show is certainly at its best when it’s lightest. On the ship to America, the refugees, who needed to be categorized for bureaucratic paperwork but did not fit neatly into any classification, were labeled “casual baggage.” The song that follows, delivered by one of the more reliable entertainers onstage, Nathan Holland, has the proper tone to it, and more similarly upbeat material would have been helpful to the show as a whole.
The music comes from William Goldstein, who is also among the producers. His credits include the television version of “Fame” and the Disney remake of “The Miracle Worker.” His work in “Haven” sounds more like a score for a film than songs for a show, all emotion and little shape. Some songs end in a baroque, instrumental flourish while others come to an abrupt halt. Most of them have melodic shards mindful of more successful Broadway compositions — “Music of the Night” from “Phantom,” for example.
Jerome Coopersmith (“The Apple Tree”) wrote the book, and really makes the rather unforgivable move of taking an incredibly strong female character with a significant career and deep political commitment and providing her a love interest among the refugees, with the implication that she can’t be happy without a guy: “I Sleep Alone,” sings Stephanie J. Block in her noble lead performance as the plucky Ruth.
The morose love interest is played capably by Mark Edgar Stephens, who like the other refugees has to overcome his distrust and the agonies of his past to find happiness in America. Under Michael Unger’s direction, the refugees tend to line up and sing out the group numbers with a pitiable sentimentality.
The set is dominated by projections that come off as someone’s home slide show, and the entire evening measures just above the level of community theater. The talk of a future Broadway landing for this show brings to mind the most famous words of “Haven’s” late lyricist Joe Darion, who in “Man of La Mancha” mentioned a different impossible dream.
Gruber attended the opening night performance of the show, which fell on her 90th birthday. She gave a gracious speech at the end, where she related this tale to contemporary events and made a plea for oppressed people everywhere. Who can argue with that?