“Donna Murphy is not human, she’s not human,” my friend sang as we walked out of Studio 54 after seeing The People in the Picture. I couldn’t disagree.
A new musical, with a book and lyrics by Iris Rainer Dart and songs by Mike Stoller and Artie Butler, The People in the Picture is a melodramatic tale of the Holocaust and the enduring power of familial love. While the musical is a vehicle for Murphy’s numerous and varied talents, the show itself falls very flat.
Directed by Leonard Foglia, The People in the Picture features Murphy in dual roles, as Bubbie, the live-in grandma of 1977 who enjoys reminiscing to her granddaughter Jenny (a very talented Rachel Resheff) and Raisel, the star of a Yiddish drama troupe in Warsaw in the 1930s and 40s. Murphy is truly remarkable in these two roles, seamlessly switching back and forth with nothing more than a moment’s pause and a different hat or hairpiece. She manages to make Bubbie sympathetic, even when the woman’s choices are clearly misguided, and she also infuses the dauntless Raisel with a necessary insecurity despite her drive and ambition to survive the terrors surrounding her.
As Bubbie ages and rapidly approaches senility, some dark secrets about her past threaten to surface. It is clear they involve her embittered, recently divorced and overworked daughter Red (Nicole Parker) but Bubbie refuses to acknowledge them, despite the encouragement of the ghosts from her past who hang around the stage, providing commentary.
The plot has the makings of a truly touching musical, but the formulaic songs and dialogue, as well as the tired clichés of family love drain the show of the authenticity that it deserves. When Red visits a nursing home with the intention of moving Bubbie there, she bursts into a song that is completely unnecessary. And the Act One song “For This,” sung by Bubbie, Red and Jenny, inspires more frustration and impatience than actual sympathy for either any of them.
The supporting cast is strong, including Lewis J. Stadlen and Chip Zien as deadpan comedians in Raisel’s ensemble. Christopher Innvar, as Raisel’s first love and the father of Red, is dashing and a strong stage presence but is given little to work with. (When Bubbie reminisces about him in Act Two, whispering a love song about memory while caressing his face, the chemistry between the two is surprisingly startling). Alexander Gemignani, as Raisel’s friend and later husband Moishe, is also impressive, but one wishes he had more of a role to sink his teeth into.
The set, which involves an enormous picture frame, is otherwise simple, and Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes and James F. Ingalls’ lighting are also understated. But no matter how hard anyone or anything tries, nothing onstage could outshine Murphy. It’s her show, even if it’s not as good as she deserves.