Underground Railway's "Brundibar": This "Giraffe" Has Legs

"Brundibar" & "But the Giraffe!" 

Underground Railway’s latest production at Central Square Theater is the children’s opera “Brundibar”. Originally performed by children at a Prague orphanage, subsequently by them when they were transported to the Terezin concentration camp in 1944 (in what is now the Czech Republic), with music by Hans Krasa and libretto by Adolf Hoffmeister, this version was adapted by Tony Kushner. It‘s presented here with its companion piece, a prequel, Kushner‘s “But the Giraffe!”.

Directed by Scott Edmiston, “Brundibar” is the fairy tale of two penniless children, Aninku (Rebecca Klein) and her brother Pepicek (Alec Shiman), who need to purchase milk for their ailing mother, so they sing in the public marketplace to earn the money. They’re thwarted by the evil Brundibar, an organ grinder (John F. King). With the help of the other children in the town, as well as a sparrow (Debra Wise), a cat (Christie Lee Gibson), and a dog (Phil Berman), they chase the organ grinder away, but he warns he will return. The presence of what appears to be a kindly policeman (Jeremiah Kissel) is misleadingly reassuring. The story concerns the triumph over tyranny by some seemingly helpless children, as well as, more subliminally, the power of art to uplift and transform.

The curtain-raiser “But the Giraffe!” takes place in the cheery bedroom of little Eva (Nora Iammarino), who is told by her mother (Gibson) that they are moving to “some place nice”, though we in the audience know better. So do her father (Berman) and grandfather (Kissel), but they keep the truth from her, even as they sport those unmissable big yellow stars. The dilemma facing Eva is that she must choose between taking her stuffed giraffe, Uncle All-Neck, and the score for an opera composed by a Mr. Krasa and in the possession of her Uncle Rudy (Patrick Varner); there’s no room to take both. Her grandmother (Wise) is wise about giraffes, but it falls to Uncle Rudy to tell Eva the score.

As a brief double bill, running just an hour and a half, this is perfect for children (perhaps “of all ages”, as they say, but adults may find Kushner’s contribution too simplistic). It’s a fine start for a more serious follow-up discussion with children as to what was really going on with this relocation. The fact that the opera was initially used as a propaganda piece doesn’t diminish the poignancy of the banishing of Brundibar (though the point was better made in the book version illustrated by Maurice Sendak when he portrayed him with a Hitler mustache). Unfortunately, as history records, evil has a way of cropping up again.

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