At the Prince Music Theater until March 18th is the world premiere of "Charlotte: Life? or Theater?", a musical based on the true life story of Jewish painter Charlotte Salomon, a young woman who lived in hiding from the Nazis during World War II. To make sense of her existence, Salomon organized her 800 paintings into a series of text and pictures cued to musical themes culled from opera, classical and popular music. The piece is wonderfully written by Elise Thoron who has based the work on much of Salomon's original material, with music by Gary S. Fagin. This "new theater work" (as it is called) takes the audience inside the world of this spirited artist's particular vision. And a unique and fascinating vision it is.
Charlotte Salomon is raised in a middle-class family in the Berlin of the 1920's. Though her mother dies when she is only nine, her father, a doctor, remarries a glamorous opera singer whom Charlotte adores. Growing up in this cultural milieu, at age sixteen she decides that she must be an artist. She receives her training at the Berlin Art Academy where she is one of the only Jewish students. She falls passionately in love with her mother's voice teacher, Alfred Wolfsohn, whose unconventional theories encourage her artistic pursuits. But in the wake of anti-Semitism in 1938 she is asked to leave the academy. A year later she seeks refuge in Niece with her maternal grandparents. Here she witnesses her grandmother's suicide and learns of her own mother's self-inflicted death and the terrible family legacy of eight suicides. Fearing her own madness and suicide, Charlotte embarks on "Life? or Theater?" as an attempt to objectify her own life.
Entrusting her work to a local doctor before her deportation to Auschwitz, her work has survived and is currently on display at the Jewish Museum in New York. It has been described as "a great opera of the mind and eye" by the New York Times, and that it truly is.
The music, some of it exquisitely beautiful, is close to operatic in nature. In fact, several operatic pieces are sung (though not in their entireties) from the likes of Bizet, von Gluck and Bach. Some of the more striking moments come when Mr. Fagin uses the actors' voices as musical instruments -- a cappella -- in gorgeous, haunting harmonies to great effect. Though there are some melodic moments ("Our Tune of Love" is quite pretty, though the first few phrases are reminiscent of "There's a Small Hotel"), most of the musical structure is angular. Though it is haunting and highly original it is difficult and demanding upon the listener and by the second act becomes monotonous. The orchestra, consisting of violin, cello, bass, clarinet and accordion, lends a mournful aura to the proceedings.
The entire cast is excellent with special kudos for acting to Mara Stephens (who carries the piece) and loud bravas to Anne Kanengeiser for her delicious singing.
The set by Douglas Stein (culled from one of Salomon's paintings) contains a highly raked burnt orange floor that covers the breadth of the stage. Into one small side pocket is deposited the orchestra. Their heads pop out as if they are in a small boat, and Charlotte instructs them to play at her wont.
Though this is a memory play, the components are so cleverly put together that it is never static. Charlotte always joins her memories in the here and now and we see active interplay between past and present. Not incidentally, the show features the best book to a new musical I've come across in a long time. And is probably due in no small part to the fluent direction of Ted Sperling, who has molded this piece into a living entity.
At the end of the play, an epilogue, if you will, a screen is dropped and we see slides of some of Charlotte's paintings in complete silence. Unfortunately, the effect doesn't work for me and I would have liked to have seen these paintings integrated into the final scene -- with the actors and the music per a musical play -- just as Ms. Salomon had intended they should be.
Nonetheless If you are interested in a young woman's exploration of the self -- then you will find Charlotte infinitely interesting.
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