Criticizing “Holocaust,” playwright Dennis Potter dismissed the argument that the 1978 miniseries was moving. If you couldn’t make the murder of 6 million Jews moving, he retorted, you shouldn’t be working in television. “Imagine This,” the heartfelt new musical set during the last days of the Warsaw Ghetto, is no different. The inevitable final scenes of Timothy Sheader’s skilled, uncynical production have both restraint and power, but not enough to overcome the preceding obstacles thrown up by its writers’ handling of the highly sensitive — and hard-to-sell — subject.
Book writer Glenn Berenbeim has saddled the proceedings with a difficult double structure: It’s a tuner-within-a-tuner.
Set amid the Jewish ghetto’s barely tolerated theater troupe, the story takes place largely on the night in 1942 before they’re shipped out to what they believe is a sunny labor camp. The group’s director Daniel (a quietly touching Peter Polycarpou) persuades them that, as a gesture of hope, they should stage a musical about Masada, the besieged hill fortress where, in year 70, a Jewish community of 960 refugees held 10,000 Roman soldiers at bay before committing collective suicide.
Plot parallels abound, and not just in the links between Romans and Germans wielding fatal power over the oppressed.
Quick-witted Daniel has saved and hidden non-Jewish political firebrand Adam (Simon Gleeson) among his actors. Daniel’s previously dutiful daughter Rebecca (Leila Benn Harris) and Adam fall in love, a development made plain when Rebecca, now acting as defiant Jewish girl Tamar, sings “When He Looked in My Eyes” about the handsome Roman general played, yes, by Adam.
So far, so “West Side Story.” But that show’s meshing of book, music and lyrics is so tight that when the hero and heroine fall for each other in a mere six lines of dialogue, auds believe them because the dramatic setup is so vivid and the writing so distinctive. Not so here.
For all the good intentions, tension barely surfaces all night. The problem is not just that almost everyone knows the ultimate ending but that the schematic and predictable writing barely elicits a single surprise.
With two plots to populate, an entirely committed cast struggles to lift their roles beyond stock types of the cowardly clown, the actress who’ll sell herself to keep a fur coat, the suffering wife. None but Daniel, however, is afforded stage time sufficient to allow auds to connect with and care for them.
Writing problems extend to the score. Even though one character sings ironically of “a penchant for schmaltz,” David Goldsmith’s lyrics are largely free of it. But, like the music by Israeli composer Shuki Levy, they lack the spark of individuality.
Levy is most at home supplying power ballads of love and defiance. But for all their carefully repeated chord patterns, or rather because of them, they feel generic. His use of wistful regret is not exactly a distant cousin to “Sunrise, Sunset” from the superior “Fiddler on the Roof,” while his minor key uplift moments echo “Close Every Door” from “Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
That the songs sometimes hit home is largely due to Chris Walker’s strong orchestrations for a 14-piece band and, particularly, the richness of the multipart vocal arrangements; this is definitely a show at its best when ditching individual hackneyed characters to focus on the entire community.
Tim Mitchell’s immensely versatile and evocative lighting works wonders with Eugene Lee’s unchanging but arresting set of a dilapidated train shed. Helmer Sheader also encourages Liam Steel’s boldly stylized choreography to escape the literal confines of the script. Yet the earnest attempt at scale is the show’s undoing.
There is a fundamental mismatch between the need for the bombast of a hit musical and the opening number that introduces us to a sweetly struggling theater troupe with almost no resources. The resulting Masada musical they stage has such wildly overblown production values and sentiments that the evening tips over into being “Les Misbegotten.”
Sadly, we’ve been here before, and better. Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 movie “To Be or Not to Be,” another actors-defy-the-Nazis-drama, scored highly by daring to be genuinely funny. More pertinently, Joshua Sobol’s 1984 play “Ghetto” used documentary evidence and songs from the Vilna ghetto to tell an almost identical but more powerful tale.
The sincerity of the tragic climax and its, for some, tear-jerking, hopeful coda may attract audiences eager to honor Jewish history. But even those able to overlook its longueurs and weaknesses are being asked to watch a feel-bad show just as a recession starts to bite.