It was clearly a labor of love on the part of children’s author-illustrator Maurice Sendak, playwright Tony Kushner and all creatives concerned to mount this children’s opera in a context that showcases its enchantments while respecting its profoundly chilling history. Written in 1938 by Prague composer Hans Krasa and originally performed in a Jewish orphanage, the score for “Brundibar” was smuggled into Terezin, the concentration camp where the composer, the creative company and the orphans were all herded when the German army invaded Czechoslovakia. After performing the opera 55 times at the camp, the musicians and the children in their care were sent to Auschwitz.
A huge black raven flies across the face of moon at the opening of the opera, casting its terrifying shadow on the cobblestoned streets and picturesque town square designed by Sendak in the beguiling style of a kids’ pop-up book. The raven is the first sign that life is not entirely a fairy tale in this quaint village.
A brother and sister played with heart-melting innocence by Aaron Simon Gross and Devynn Pedell introduce another dark element when they come to the town square to find milk for their sick mother. Too poor to pay for the milk, they beg for coins by entertaining the villagers with a pretty song — until a sinister hurdy-gurdy grinder named Brundibar (Euan Morton, in Hitlerian moustache) drowns them out and chases them away.
But these children are made of stern stuff. They tell their sad story to a kindly dog (Geoff Hoyle), a clever cat (Angelina Reaux) and a perky flying sparrow (Anjali Bhimani) — all amusingly costumed by Robin I. Shane — who help them devise a plan to defeat the bully.
Early the next morning, all the children of the town gather in the square to out-sing Brundibar and raise the milk money. As played by some two dozen members of the children’s group Rosie’s (as in O’Donnell) Broadway Kids, the boys and girls raise the roof with their spirited vocalizing of Krasa’s melodic music and the show ends with the feeling that, given their voice, the children of the world could, indeed, silence the croaking of bullies.
Like all good fairy tales, “Brundibar” is composed of lightness and shadows, both elements scrupulously observed in Tony Taccone’s gorgeously designed and remarkably well choreographed production. (Two dozen children on stage! All at once!)
Tony Kushner’s curtain-raiser, “But the Giraffe,” will probably go right over the heads of kids in the audience, with its slender story about a little girl (played with exceptional intelligence by Danielle Freid) who must decide which treasure to take with her on a vaguely defined journey — her beloved stuffed giraffe, or the musical score her uncle urges her to pack in her suitcase.
But in its unnervingly subtle fashion, the short play — an imagined version of how “Brundibar” came to be smuggled out of Prague and into Terezin — is the perfect primer for the adults.