BWW Review: IMAGINE THIS, Union Theatre
Imagine this: you're a Jew corralled into the Warsaw Ghetto, the jackboot metaphorically (and, at times, literally) on the throat. Imagine this: you're an entertainer, a "the show must go on" type, a man with a play, and a plan. Imagine this: you know that the trains that leave for Treblinka return empty, the camp a no bucolic kibbutz, but a death factory, Warsaw's desperate Jews bribed and fooled. Fascists do that. They define evil and demand that something be done in response - in those moments, we see the real substance of men and women, even today.
Imagine This failed in the West End nine years ago, and it's not hard to see why. Glenn Berenbeim's book (with its play-within-a-play structure, as the plight of Jews under the Nazis is paralleled by the company's show about the plight of Jews (and Christians) under the Romans) is overly complicated and plods rather than soars to its conclusion. Shuki Levy and David Goldsmith's songs are rooted in the Jewish melodies that have done so much to enrich (perhaps even to comprise) musical theatre, aching with pain and hope, but a they are just a little too indistinguishable over a two hours running time.
That said, this production has much to commend it. The songs are sung well and the band (when not over-egging the cymbals) balance the voices beautifully, voices, as always at this venue, unamplified and more emotionally charged as a consequence.
There are some very nice performances too, with Nick Wyschna as the company's leader, Warshowsky, sensitively understated in his wrestling with the Nazis' vile manipulation of art (Joseph Goebells' reputation was well-earned - a ruthlessly evil genius amongst psychopaths, bullies and buffoons).
Shaun McCourt and Lauren James Ray capture their love affair across the political divide with a tender credibility, humanity's humanity unbroken. Rob Hadden makes the ambitiously amoral Rufus genuinely villainous without ever toppling into caricature and Robert Wilkes vests his Pompey with humour and a Sydney Cartonesque sense of sacrifice, mirroring the founder of his faith.
Not for one moment (and I guess you can tell from reading thus far) did I believe that there was any sense of trivialising the Holocaust by presenting elements of its thoroughgoing corruption of morality through musical theatre - indeed, through a musical set within a musical. If anything, the reverse was the case - the stakes riding on Warshowsky's decision made painfully sharper and horribly immediate.
So much then, in this production's favour - but it's hobbled by the lacklustre book and songs that, pleasing though they are to hear, just do not demand to be heard.