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Brundibar with But the Giraffe, a CurtainUp review CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp Review

with But the Giraffee, a curtain raiser

By Elyse Sommer

. . . one must always be wary of drawing false reassurances from the horrific lessons of the Holocaust. . . In dark times such as these Brundibar, both the opera and its tragic history, shouldn't offer us too much reassurance; we shouldn't draw comfort from the fact that even after the worst has happened, people and art survive, because, after all, only some people survive, while many are lost and some art is salvaged, but much creative brilliance, like Hans Krása's is extinguished before its time, and what the world loses can't be recovered.
--- From Tony Kushner's program notes.

William Youmans (Rudy) and Danielle Freid (Little Girl) in Tony Kushner's <i>But The Giraffe</i>
William Youmans (Rudy) and Danielle Freid (Little Girl) in Tony Kushner's But The Giraffe (Photo: Nan Melville)
Brundibar, the comic opera for children currently at the New Victory Theater is short -- running just a little over half an hour-- but it's got a long and moving history. Created by Czech composer Hans Krása and librettist Adolf Hoffmeister during the ominous period of the Nazis' rise to power, it had its debut in a Prague orphanage.

When the Nazis invaded Prague and the orphanage director and everyone associated with the premiere were deported to Terezin, touted by the Nazis' as a "model camp" but actually a way station for deportation to Auschwitz and its gas chambers. The teenager who conducted the orphanage production managed to smuggle the manuscript into Terezin where it was actually performed 55 times because the Nazis saw it as an opportunity to use it as a means to fool organizations like the Red Cross into believing their claims about humane treatment of the interned Jews. All those those young performers and musicians perished the manuscript somehow survived to be extricated from the ruins of Terezin.

Though Brundibar has been occasionally performed since World War II, it took the collaboration of playwright Tony Kushner and children's book illustrator Maurice Sendak to bring it to rich, Technicolor life -- that Technicolor typical of all good fairy tales and Sendak's books filled with dark shadows and the ending keeping the story within the context of its history.The organ grinder who's the story's bad guy title character gets his comeuppance -- but not without warning everyone that he's prepared to make a comeback --adapter Kushner's way of cautioning us that even happy endings shouldn't be taken for granted and that we can't stop being vigilant against irretrievable losses caused when evil is let loose.

When Tony Taccone first staged Brundibar at his home base, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, it was paired with another short musical from the same mid-century period (Comedy on the Bridge), but it was felt that a curtain opener that would be a more meaningfully lead-in to the Krása piece was needed. And so the current opening piece is But the Giraffe, a playlet written by Kushner which. It makes this connection beautifully. While not a musical, it has little musical riffs to herald the more musical main event to come. Like the opera, But the Giraffe is a simple story with its link to Brundibar strengthened by having its characters portrayed by actors who also appear in the main piece. The setting though different, is again of a piece with the opera thanks to Sendak's stunning design work.

But the Giraffe uses the facts about how the opera manuscript came to be smuggled into Terezin. The setting is a bedroom in the Prague apartment of a family headed for Terezin, with each family member allowed just one suitcase. As her anxious elders scurry around, the youngest member of the family (the talented young Danielle Freid) whose bedroom we're in is faced with a tough choice: If she takes her beloved toy giraffe her suitcase won't hold the big book containing the Brundibar score which Rudy (William Youmans), the family counterpart of the young musician who saved the script in real life, tells her is more important. There's no missing the anxiety that overarches the household, yet there's enough going on for even youngsters too young to fully understand what's happening to be captivated.

Brundibar (Euan Morton) and his monkey lay claim to their turf.
Brundibar (Euan Morton) and his monkey lay claim to their turf.
(Photo: Kevin Berne)

After the intermission, Sendak's pallette shifts from pastels to a deeper-toned rustic village that will be familiar to Sendak's many fans. The story has not one but two children at its center, a brother and sister (an endearing Aaron Simon Gross and Devynn Pedell) trying to earn some money so that they can buy milk for their sick mother. They are thwarted by a colorful but selfish group of town officials and merchants, with the character most likely to make theirs a mission impossible the intimidating organ grinder named Brundibar (the unfailingly terrific Euan Morton). But there's also help via a wily Sparrow (Anjali Bhimani) and cat (Angelilina Réaux).

Brundibar would be a success even if only judged for the visual delights evoked by Sendak and costumer Robin I. Shane. Happily, the music also charms with its flavor of folk songs spiced with touches of Weimar cabaret, especially with so many fine actor/singers: Geoff Hoyle doubling as the baker and a rascally dog; Matt Farnsworth and Martin Vidnovic as the village milkman and policeman respectively; Henry Digiovanni selling eye-popping, super-sized ice cream cones. Also filling the stage is the buoyant ensemble made up of boys and girls from Rosie O'Donnell's Broadway Kids.

The early Sunday matinee I attended was packed with eight to twelve-year-olds. They proved to be a terrific audience -- applauding every song, laughing in all the right places and applauding even more when it was all over.

Some things for parents to keep in mind: Due to the quiet nature of the opening piece, there is no latecomer seating. There's also an exhibit well worth checking out during the intermission. You can also find a list of resources about the Holocaust on the New Victory web site.

BUT THE GIRAFFE, a Curtain Raiser by Tony Kushner, based very loosely on an actual event: the smuggling of the score of Brundibar into Terezin by Brundibar's conductor, Rudolph Freudenfeld.
Cast: Danielle Freid (Little Girl), Anjali Bhimani (Mother), William Youmans (Rudy), Angelina Réaux (Grandmother), Martin Vidnovic (Granfather), Matt Farnsworth (Father), Geoff Hoyle (The Soldier)
Libretto by Tony Kushner adapted from Adolf Hoffmeister's text
Music by Hans Krása
Cast: Aaron Simon Gross (Pepicek), Devynn Pedell(Aninku), Euan Morton (Brundibar), Anjali Bhimani (Sparrow), Angelina Réaux (Cat), Geoff Hoyle (Baker, Dog), Henry DiGiovanni (Ice-Cream Seller), Martin Vidnovic (Policeman), Matt Farnsworth (Milkman), William Youmans (Professor Ucitelli, Rosie's Broadway Kids (Ensemble)

Production Design: Maurice Sendak with Kris Stone
Scenic Designer: Kris Stone
Directed by Tony Taccone
Costume Designer: Robin I. Shane
Lighting Designer: Donald Holder
Sound Design: Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen
Movement Director: Kim Okada
Music Director & Conductor: Greg Anthony:
Running time: 95 minutes, one 15-minute intermission.
New 42nd Street, Berkeley Repertory Theatre & Yale Repertory Theatre at theNew Victory Theater, 209 West 42nd Street, 212/239-6200
From 4/28/06 to 5/21/06; opening 5/07/06
For performance schedule, see the New Victory web site at
Suggested audience: age 8 or older
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on May 7th press performance
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