If context were everything, we might have trouble
enjoying Hans Krˇsa's lovely children's operetta "Brundibar." For while
it's not quite in the class of some of the greats of the genre -
Ravel's "L'enfant et les sortileges," Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel"
- "Brundibar" is light, flavorful fun, particularly as seen in a new
Off-Broadway production, with an adaptation by Tony Kushner and design
by Maurice Sendak.
Discoloring our delight is the piece's painful history. Written in
Prague in 1938, "Brundibar" had most of its performances at the Czech
concentration camp TerezĚn (Theresienstadt) in the 1940s, where Krˇsa
was held until his deportation to Auschwitz, where he died. The
original performers were prisoners, as were the audiences, except in
one infamous instance: When the Red Cross came to inspect TerezĚn in
1944, the Nazis hastily "beautified" the overcrowded camp to resemble a
happy Jewish ghetto. Among the key propaganda exhibits for these
clueless observers was "Brundibar."
What are we to make of this new version, a sunny storybook with songs?
An affirmation of the indomitable creative spirit? A minor gem
retrieved from the ruins of Jewish Europe? It may be hard to sort out
our adult feelings about "Brundibar," but kids should have no qualms in
relishing the elemental story, the charming score or the invitingly
For parents who would use the show as a way to talk to youngsters about
the Holocaust, there is Kushner's helpful curtain-raiser, "But the
Giraffe," in which a young girl (Danielle Freid) packs for her family's
evacuation to TerČzin.
Kushner masterfully, if somewhat
repetitively, introduces the operetta's fraught historical backdrop
from the innocent point of view of a child for whom leaving home seems
merely an annoyance, while the adults around her work to hide their
terror. She has one retort worthy of Bart Simpson: To the vague
parental instruction "behave," the little girl replies, "I am behaving.
I am behaving selfishly."
"Brundibar," on the other hand, has a
resolutely fairy-tale setting, with Sendak's pop-up shtetl glancing
artfully in Chagall's direction. The impoverished near-orphans PepĚcek
(Aaron Simon Gross) and Aninka (Devynn Pedell) come to town with
"sorrow in every step," though with their sweet voices and colorful
peasant garb (costumes by Robin I. Shane), they look more as if they
had stepped out of an optimistic social realist poster.
the two try busking for change, the town's evil organ-grinder,
Brundibar (Euan Morton), menaces them with a mincing comic-villain
number that evokes Danny Kaye as Captain Hook. To their rescue come an
unlikely trio: a cat (Angelina RČaux), a dog (Geoff Hoyle) and a bird
(Anjali Bhimani), who drum up a "singing army" to vanquish the
town-square tyrant. The chorus' closing platitudes, set to a galumphing
march, are bittersweet, given their original context: "When a bully's
near/ Tell him you're not afraid/ You'll see him fade away." Tyranny
has proven remarkably resilient, of course, but so, thank God, has
BRUNDIBAR. English adaptation by Tony Kushner,
after Adolf Hoffmeister's original libretto. Music by Hans Krˇsa. With
"But the Giraffe," written by Kushner. Directed by Tony Taccone.
Through May 21 at New Victory Theatre, 209 42nd St., Manhattan. Tickets
$10-$30. Call 212-239-6200. Seen Thursday.