An important but lesser-known chapter in Holocaust history involves the successful demonstrations staged by thousands of non-Jewish German women outside of the Rosenstrasse detention camp in Berlin in 1943. Over several days, the women vehemently but peacefully protested the death sentences of their spouses, who had been rounded up and imprisoned simply because they were married to Gentiles. Company Rep unveils an ambitious musical based on this amazing story, with book and lyrics by Terry Lawrence and music by Max Kinberg. The result is an inspirational and deeply moving paean to nonviolent protest and courage. It's an imperfect yet praiseworthy endeavor, bolstered by haunting musical passages, powerful scenes, and a magnificent ensemble.
Though director Hope Alexander helms a compelling rendition, the piece occasionally drifts uneasily between dissonant chamber opera and Brechtian political drama. The underscoring, recitative, and spoken dialogue don't form a cohesive aesthetic motif; the stylistic seams are showing. Furthermore attempts to add grace notes to the tragic subject matter lead the story down frivolous byways. There's too much cloying reminiscing, such as the song in which the women trade cute anecdotes about their absent-minded husbands. The show is at its best when focusing squarely on the urgent issues: the ostracism by various parties, the cowardice of those who pay lip service to terrible injustices without taking action, and the danger the women have put themselves in.
Splendid singing and remarkable characterizations help pick up that slack. As the stouthearted Katerina, defying her mother's bigotry, Chera Holland gives an incisive and heartrending portrayal. Nora Linden is likewise formidable as a woman willing to offer sexual favors to Gestapo officers to save her husband. Also excellent are Mary Van Arsdel as a factory worker hiding her husband's ethnicity from her employer, Karen Reed as a woman facing pressure from both sides of her family, Susie Myrvold as a fearless teenager trying to locate her father, and Barbara Haber as an elegant Baroness discovering that even she isn't immune to Nazi terrorism. Design elements and Jan Powell's fine music direction further enhance the production. The flaws in this highly promising new work are worth fixing. It's an eloquent telling of a life-affirming story that mustn't be forgotten.
"Rosenstrasse," presented by The Company Rep at the S. Mark Taper Foundation Playhouse, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Mar. 18-Apr. 16. $10-22.50. (866) 811-4111.