Produced by: Scott & Shannon Guggenheim
Directed by: Scott & Shannon Guggenheim
Band: Kymber Gillen on violin, Asaf Ophir on woodwinds, Don Bosco on keyboard, Aharon Bolsta on percussion, Gus Kambeitz on bass, and bandleader Tom Tomasello on piano
Featuring: Susan Gudunas, Julia Wade, Natalie Schroeder, Stephen Guggenheim, F. James Raasch, Jim Ambler, Brian Watson, Krista Wigle, John Minagro, Emma Berman
When: April 26-May 13, 2018
Where: 3Below Theaters (formerly Camera 3), 288 South 2nd Street, San Jose
Tickets: $25-$54. Call 408-404-7711 or visit https://3belowtheaters.com/events/the-people-in-the-picture/
'The People in the Picture'
in 1930s Poland to Jewish life in 1970s New York
Keeping a culture going for thousands of years is the story of the Jewish people. Keeping it going for just 50 years is the story of "The People in the Picture," a musical that traces the female line of a Jewish family through the eyes of Raisel (Susan Gundunas), from the Polish pogroms of the 1930s to the Warsaw Ghetto of the 1940s and into 1970s New York.
The show starts with Raisel and her "Warsaw Gang" of actors singing in the foot-tapping "Bread and Theatre" that without theater they'd be dead. We immediately start to hear some humor in the lyrics of the song, as they rhyme "bedpan" with "deadpan" and "blue-ish" with "Jewish." But dark clouds are forming in Poland as news of killings and the pogroms starts to spread.
Forward to New York in the 1970s, and Raisel is grandmother ("Bubbie") to young Jenny, played by the charming (and talented) Natalie Shroeder. She looks after Jenny, taking her to and from school — when she remembers. Raisel's memory is fading, or at least her short-term memory is. But her memory of the past is as strong as ever, and the back of the stage is dominated by an enormous picture frame into which step the people from Raisel's past.
Raisel's daughter, "Red" Martin (Julia Wade), is one of a team of writers on a TV comedy show and we see the team throwing out bad jokes one after another ("Why didn't Moses wear a comb-over? He liked a parting.") Red sings in "Juggling Act" about her job, being a single mother, and looking after her own aging mother.
Jenny is gradually coaxing the old stories out of Raisel, writing them down for posterity, and the more Raisel remembers from the past, the more the past and its characters seem to blend into her present. In fact, Gundunas does a marvelous job of changing from young Raisel to old Raisel at the drop of a hat, the two characters blending into one.
"Remember Who You Are" is both a song and a central theme as Raisel and the people from her past sing "Don't let them undo you/don't let them unJew you." And yet they lament that some of the great writers and composers who fled to America anglicized their Jewish names.
Back in the Warsaw Ghetto, Raisel becomes pregnant and has her baby, but food is in short supply, so she and husband Moishe (Stephen Guggenheim) decide to give their baby girl to some non-Jewish friends to look after. Raisel survives the Holocaust, although Moishe does not, and she moves to New York. But after the war she decides to come back to Warsaw to look for her little girl. Does she find her? You should see the play and find out for yourself.
Along with humor (the list of Jewish comedians is endless), that other great Jewish contribution to the world is guilt. Guilt for not calling your mother, guilt for letting the Holocaust happen, guilt for Adam eating that apple — it goes back a long way, and Raisel makes the best of it. But, nearing her deathbed, she gives up one secret she has held on to for many years, and maybe assuages her own guilt. But even at the last, she has to have the last word. Her old friends in the picture frame, getting ready to welcome her back into the gang, say "Her daughter knows Neil Simon, you know." "No," says Raisel, "I said she's no Neil Simon."
Just like in author Iris Rainer Dart's novel and movie "Beaches," "The People in the Picture" makes us laugh, cry, think and ponder.
The 3Below theater in downtown San Jose began as a movie theater and continues to serve that purpose, so there are no "wings" on the stage for the actors, or the musicians (great band by the way) to move far from the action, which means that things are always moving, like a bunch of Rodney Dangerfield one-liners.
Poignant, but never gloomy, the musical, with music by the great Mike Stoller and Artie Butler, ran on Broadway a few years ago and keeps us on our toes (which are often tapping), and is a great theater experience.
Email Tony Lacy-Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org