The Nazis wanted to prove to the world that they were treating Jews well. So they established the "model" town of Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia and displayed prominent musicians, writers, and other artistic types, all apparently happily at work, to make their point. But the anti-Semitism couldn't be kept in check. As in the children's game of musical chairs, the Jews were eliminated one by one.
This musical based on the model town is a noble effort, with a solid if predictable story by Jennifer Carter and a score by Oscar-winner Joel Hirschhorn. It describes the odyssey of composer/pianist Rachel Rubin and the friends and family that make up a small orchestra as a front to fool the Red Cross investigators into believing the Nazis' kindness. In present-day Israel, Rubin is trying to convince her grandson not to emigrate to America, telling him the story of her days under the Gestapo thumb. It is a contrived and not very convincing gimmick, but it does set the scene quickly. It also sets the one-note tone of the musical, which, though all about hope and courage, never shows a bright side to prove its premise. Hirschhorn's score follows suit. Most of the songs are little more than recitative, and nowhere is there heard that soaring melody that would glorify the play's point.
Both the score and the book, though, are given their best shot in exceptionally good performances by a cast that not only provides rounded, full performances with interesting subtext throughout but is also distinguished by fine voices that bring needed life to Hirschhorn's music. Especially notable are Jessica Pennington's touching Rachel, Ron Slanina's ex-doctor turned conductor Aaron Frey, and Gary Newton's vicious Gestapo leader Anton Schmidt. Their voices are rich and stand out in a company full of good voices.
Susan Hoffman's touching Leah, Eric Ashmore's sturdy David, and Michael Uribes' volatile Max are also highlights in director Jules Aaron's interesting and visually attractive staging, also noteworthy for Kay Cole's inventive choreography, which achieves the marvelous effect of looking like everyday movement rather than organized choreography.
"Musical Chairs," presented by and at El Portal Center's Circle Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hollywood. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 2 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Aug. 24-Sept. 23. $25. (818) 508-4200.