Musical chairs is a child's game, but in Joel Hirschhorn (book, words and music) and Jennifer Carter's (story) musical by that name, it represents the somber struggle of a captive six-person orchestra. There are some heartfelt moments, well-tuned by Jules Aaron's astute direction, but the music sometimes gets in the way of character development.
In the cozy confines of the El Portal Center's Circle Theatre, the voices and canned music can at times be overwhelming. Don Gruber's set is dominated by two double-decked scaffolds. On one, the actors representing the Nazis. On the other, the Jewish musicians.
At Theresienstadt, in Czechoslovakia, the Nazis set up a model ghetto filled with talented Jews as a facade for their systematic killings. In Hirschhorn and Carter's story, a talented pianist-composer, Rachel (Jessica Pennington) is the center of the artificial town's orchestra. Her older sister, Leah (Susan Hoffman), and her impulsive younger brother, Max (Michael Uribes), are also members, as is her beau, David (Eric Ashmore). This seems a bit too convenient, but the play's main problem is that the relationships are outlined by song and not developed by intimation. In the second act, the relationships are further defined--including an abrupt and brief revelation about the commanding officers Karl (David Mingrino) and Anton (Gary Newton).
This Holocaust segment is bracketed by a grandmother (Pennington) explaining her past hardships and attempting to persuade her grandson (Uribes) to stay in present-day, war-torn Israel.
The style borders on soap opera but never abandons itself completely to operatic emoting. Nonetheless, Pennington and Ron Slanina as the orchestra's conductor provide some heartfelt romantic moments. Susannah Hall as the daring caricaturist who is brutally punished for her rebellious pen provides stark emotional power.
Yet the lingering mental melody of this new musical is one of disconcerting pro-Israeli, anti-Palestinian politics that seems to subvert the lessons of the Holocaust into a justification or rationalization for another war. It's not a tidy ending, but one person's interpretation of a horrific historical moment when a township became a zoo, putting on an exhibition for the rest of the world.
"Musical Chairs," El Portal Center, Circle Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Sept. 23. $25. (818) 508-4200. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.