BWW Review: CABARET IN CAPTIVITY Pays Tribute to Victims of the Holocaust Through a Profound Night of Musical Escapism and Reflection
Alice Sommer Herz, the world's oldest living Holocaust survivor and a prolific concert pianist, once said, "Music saved my life, and Music saves me still." On Yom Hashoah, a day devoted to honoring the lives lost in the Holocaust, a group of artists visited Pangea to pay tribute to souls saved through music, the strong men and women of the concentration camps, and the resilience of the human spirit.
You might think that a night devoted to cabaret songs and vaudeville-style sketches with slapstick jokes swapped back and forth, including "Ghettover it," and, "Potatoes with thumbtacks are the latest diet craze" would seem off-color for such a somber occasion. But, as the cast warns us when welcoming us as fellow prisoners and spectators, this is an "evening of entertainment," not a "celebration."
CABARET IN CAPTIVITY is a compilation of skits, poems, letters and songs actually written by Austrian and Czech Jews in the Terezin Ghetto, conceived by the multitalented director Edward Einhorn and curated and directed by the dynamo Jenny Lee Mitchell (with assistance from legendary voice coach Barbara Maier Gustern) under the excellent musical direction of Maria Dessena. These words, which rang eerily relevant in light of current events, pierced with potent truthfulness and impeccable vocal skill by a superb cast of singers with extensive backgrounds in theatre, opera, and film. These texts were based on Lisa Peschel's anthology, PERFORMING CAPTIVITY, PERFORMING ESCAPE, revealing the "wide range of ways in which the prisoners engaged with and escaped from life in the ghetto through performance."
Terezin was the final stop for more than 30,000 Central and Western European Jews, and in this holding place, before many went onto the death and labor camps, prisoners found meaning, power, hope, and resistance through their art. Many of the works performed, in English, Czech, and German, were newly discovered, and filled a night of remembrance with "creativity in captivity."
Although honoring a somber event, the atmosphere was surprisingly pleasant and uplifting, opening with a jumpy uptempo medley, as performers bolted out of the audience and onto the stage, seamlessly switching languages, guiding the audience with clear translations of the original texts. The audience seemed to understand and respond to the foreign languages, laughing on cue, and indicating that there was most likely a global group in attendance. As performers welcoming us to an "evening of entertainment," they illustrated in sharp, clever, yet deeply profound lyrics, that the performance was a means of reminding them of a former life. In the style of immersive theater, they welcomed us into the camp as fellow prisoners, and invited us to "remember what it was like to be human," so we could "forget for a few moments."
"We'll make fools of ourselves," the versatile performers claimed. Rather, they inspired and uplifted with their vaudevillian skits and poetic, resourceful reflections on hardship. For example, a playful duet, "The Flea and the Louse" is a precious love song of sorts between the many itchy, "cuddly pets" they have grown accustomed to in the ghetto.
Some ballads, though more serious, still glimmer with optimism and hope. A highlight of the night was reminiscent of a Willy Wonka-style "Pure Imagination" ballad, luring us into a world of dreams as a means for survival.
"Just As If" (Leo Strauss) was portrayed by the talented Jeremy Lawrence, whose credits range from INTO THE WOODS to FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, as well as his own LAVENDER SONGS: A QUEER CABARET IN WEIMAR BERLIN currently at Pangea. In this song, he urges fellow prisoners to believe every lie "as if those lies were true," enticing us with the power of imagination to make us believe lying on the floor was like lying comfortably in bed. As he sings so insightfully, "When you make believe is real, then the memory never fails." Every lyric ("It's only for The Chosen / Just as if it were a choice.") swells with a poignant double meaning.
The entire cast showed a fierce commitment to the stories being told, and as an ensemble, they honored these stories with humility, compassion, and conviction. Through a comedic fashion skit, where Mitchell performed a quick-witted monologue about how the latest fashion in the ghetto is not a hairstyle, but in the "shape of one's head," one might be taken aback at the crude commentary, ("One wears one's bones in view,") and the recommendation to stick to the diet because "success is dead certain." Yet, Mitchell's comedic flair felt perfectly suited to the night's vital message.
After a lineup of humorous skits and songs, a somber ballad, gorgeously crooned by Seth Gilman, tells of being shipped off again "with dreams so far away waiting somewhere for me," and "happy memories a world away." Singers wove in and out of the audience, as they collectively serenaded and confronted us with this reality. There is dark humor, ("You're transported for free!") and melodically sweet truths which echoed through rich voices of Mitchell and Andrianna Smela, singing, "We're here 'til the end of the ride / We play, never knowing why," in a haunting ballad, appropriately titled, "Carousel." This melancholy musing is followed by the question, "Do you have any optimistic songs for us?" followed by a jolly tune, reminiscent of "This Little Light of Mine." The song dares us to "Keep your head up high / That's how you defy." It's the survival strategy which united this "evening of entertainment."
The night was incredibly uplifting, and at moments, you forget that you were being sung to as a prisoner in the camps. The real tear-jerking moment came as the performers each said who they were actually portraying: many real-life actresses and musicians, including Ira Strauss and his wife. They spoke of who survived, who perished, who married in the camps, and who were deported. The final surprise of the night was that an actual survivor of both Terezin and Auschwitz was in the audience to witness the entire night.
What is the power of a story? We tell the stories of those before us to teach the world what we can learn from history. Never again, we say, as we share the words, memories and art of Terezin, of a people who found such light in severe darkness. It creates activism in place of oblivion. As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors who were also in Terezin and the death camps, I felt a strong connection not only to my own legacy, but the power of music to elevate the human spirit. As the cast digs in their final anthem, "Where there's a will, there's a way."
CABARET IN CAPTIVITY is a call to action to use hope not as a means of passive daydreaming, but a powerful act of resistance. It has been said that, "Humor equals truth plus distance." Perhaps humor was the most palatable, effective way of sharing the unbelievable creativity, will, and resistance that came from the "Chosen" who "had no choice."
Amy Oestreicher is a PTSD specialist, artist, author, health advocate, award-winning actress, and playwright. She is currently touring her one-woman musical, GUTLESS AND GRATEFUL, across the country. Her work can be found at amyoes.com.