Don’t take children’s opera “Brundibar” (Bumblebee) and companion piece, “But the Giraffe!” at face value. To fully appreciate this touching two-part children’s opera, charmingly performed by Underground Railway Theater, one must know its background.
In the theater lobby, the company wisely posted explanations, along with drawings of children incarcerated in Terezin concentration camp, and a photo and description of Holocaust survivor Ela Weissberger. In 1944, she portrayed the cat in “Brundibar,” and in the Nazis’ propagandist film version. Also posted are comments from Central Square’s youth performers, about bullies and “upstanders,” or active bystanders.
Composer Hans Krasa and librettist Adolf Hoffmeister wrote “Brundibar” in 1938, in the Prague, Czechoslovakia Jewish ghettoes. Their opera was originally performed in sham concentration camp, Terezin, by children deported to and incarcerated there with Krasa. Luckily, Hoffmeister escaped before deportation.
The Nazis fooled Red Cross visitors who came to inspect Terezin, and in 1944, created a propagandist movie of the children performing “Brundibar” in the camp, entitled “The Fuehrer Presents the Jews with a City,” to show the world how happy and well-treated the children were. What the world didn’t see was Krasa and the little performers’ deportation to death camp, Auschwitz, where they were executed in the gas chambers.
Since then, this lovely, allegorical opera of good’s brief triumph over evil has been performed many times globally. Celebrated American playwright, Tony Kushner, (renowned writer of “Angels in America”) collaborated with multi-award winning illustrator Maurice Sendak (“Where the Wild Things Are”) to present the play in 2003 in Chicago. Kushner wrote the libretto and Sendak designed the set. Together, they also created their masterpiece, must-read children’s book.
At Central Square, Jenna McFarland Lord’s set, Leslie Held’s costumes, puppet designer, David Fichter and builder, Brad Shur, nicely recreate Sendak’s illustrations.
Under Director Scott Edmiston’s deft leadership, the production opens with Kushner’s brief play, “But the Giraffe!” a poignant prelude, starring fifth-grader Nora Immarino as Eva, a petulant child who insists on taking her toy stuffed giraffe with her on a family trip of unknown destination. To stuff her beloved giraffe into the suitcase, Eva repeatedly unpacks her uncle Rudy’s musical score, “Brundibar,” which he insists must come with him; but reason reigns here.
Flash forward to Act II. Children languish on concentration camp bunks, and Patrick Varner as Rudy and musical conductor of “Brundibar” directs a children’s performance. Varner is inspiring, along with Jeremiah Kissel in both plays, as Eva’s worried grandfather and the cop in “Brundibar”. Company artistic director Debra Wise as Eva’s grandmother and the wise Sparrow adds her usual fine touch, along with Phil Berman as Eva’s harried father and the wise Dog, and Christie Lee Gibson as Eva’s mother and the wise Cat. Besides John F. King, who is terrifying as evil organ grinder, Brundibar, (an allegorical Hitler), Rebecca Klein as little sister Aninku, and veteran child performer Alec Shiman as her brother Pepicek are outstanding, backed by the enchanting, large children’s chorus.
“Brundibar” is a happy little tale of two poor, fatherless children whose mother is very il. They must buy milk to cure her, but they have no money. They try singing in the village, hoping passersby will toss money to them, like they do to evil organ grinder Brundibar, but their voices are too small. Besides, Brundibar hates children and doesn’t like their intruding on his turf.
He was bullied as a child and hates people. Like the Nazis invading and terrorizing the children and their families in real life, brother Pepicek and sister Aninku are powerless against Brundibar’s cruelty, until they encounter a talking cat, dog, and sparrow, who advise them to gather all the children (302) in the square to sing with them, drowning out Brundibar.
Their plan works, thwarting the evil organ grinder, and earning their needed funds. As the children rejoice, their malevolent foe reappears in the darkness, a flashlight shining on his clownish white-face, his hair fashioned in two horns. Brundibar lost this village skirmish, but he knows he’ll win the war against them. He chants, “They believe they won the fight, They believe I’m gone - not quite! Nothing ever works out neatly, Bullies don’t give up completely. One departs, the next appears, and we shall meet again, my dears! Though I go, I won’t go far....I’ll be back. Love, Brundibar”.
BOX INFO: Underground Railway Theater presents Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Hans Krasa and Adolf Hoffmeister opera, “Brundibar,” and Kushner’s companion piece, “But the Giraffe!” through April 6, at Central Square Theater, 450 Mass. Ave., Cambridge. Showtimes: Wednesday, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 3,8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Tickets start at $20. Call 866-811-4111, visit the Box Office or CentralSquareTheater.org.