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Cautionary tale of concentration camp lacks true depth

Megan Long Matt Edmonds star 'Signs Life' Victory Gardens Theater.

Megan Long and Matt Edmonds star in "Signs of Life" at Victory Gardens Theater.

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Somewhat recommended

When: Through Oct. 27

Where: Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln

Tickets : $45-$65

Info: (773) 871-3000;

Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission

Updated: October 3, 2013 12:58PM

The story of the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia — one of the stranger and more perversely sinister chapters in Holocaust history — has been dealt with in several forms, including the 1980 film, “Playing for Time.”

Now, in “Signs of Life, A Tale of Terezin” — an independently produced show presented on the Victory Gardens Theater’s mainstage — it has been turned into a musical by Peter Ullian (book), Len Schiff (lyrics) and Joel Derfner (music). The work’s creators clearly had their hearts in the right place. And the story of Terezin is unquestionably a potent and timely cautionary tale that suggests the power of propaganda and the deception that can accompany official “inspection tours.” Just as crucially, it reveals how people behave under the most extreme pressures, and how art can not only be sustaining, but serve as a document of history long after the artists themselves have perished.

Yet for all its good intentions and earnestness, this musical is simplistic and cliched to a painful degree. Mel Brooks could get away with dancing Nazis in the big “Springtime for Hitler” number in “The Producers” because he meant it to be outrageous and offensive. Here, the Nazis don’t dance, although one has a song to suggest how fervent, if sick, his beliefs are. But the whole enterprise feels like a teaching tool for a clueless teenage audience rather than for sophisticated adults.

Terezin went through several phases but was primarily a ghetto and labor camp that in most cases served as a way-station to the death camps. It was the place where a large number of Czech Jews, many with artistic and intellectual backgrounds, were sent from 1940 on. In 1944, some of these inmates were deployed to create a sort of “Potemkin village” — a fake place, devised to deceive and impress visiting officials of the Red Cross who were increasingly hearing about the horrors at Auschwitz and the other camps. Terezin was “beautified” as “a model city for the Jews,” with artistic activity even captured in a propaganda film. It worked.

In “Signs of Life” we meet a cross-section of inmates. There is Kurt Gerard (Jason Collins), the effete theater director; Jacob Schumann (Michael Joseph Mitchell), a wealthy Prague gallery owner accompanied by Lorelei (Megan Long), his pretty, artistic and precocious 17-year-old granddaughter, and her beloved younger brother, Wolfie (Brennan Dougherty); Simon Muller (Matt Edmonds), a lyricist who falls for Lorelei; Jonas (Nathan Cooper), a gay artist who refuses to lie; and Berta (the excellent Lara Filip), a Jewish woman who converted, but was still abandoned by her Nazi-affiliated husband. James Rank and Doug Pawlik are the Nazis.

In many ways the show’s most powerful element is designer Brian Sidney Bembridge’s haunting set with its sharply angled, wood-slatted walls conjuring the barracks of Terezin and other camps. You could easily study the reproductions of surviving artwork and other archival materials in the show’s fine lobby display, sit in the theater, and meditate on the nightmarish history.


Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic

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