It is an unwritten rule of Broadway that any show with Donna Murphy in it is worth seeing. It’s just a shame that the show has to be The People in the Picture, a slow, schmaltzy and cliché-filled musical with all the qualities of a Lifetime movie or Hallmark card.
Clearly designed as a star vehicle, Murphy plays Raisel Rabonowitz, a 79-year-old Jewish grandmother reminiscing about her previous life as a star of the Yiddish Theater circuit in pre-war Poland. Throughout the show, Murphy switches back and forth in time to portray both her younger and older self.
In the 1930s, she and the rest of The Warsaw Gang are seen performing in small villages before the Nazis gain power. We see her portray God, materializing from above and dangling on strings, and a Dybbuk surrounded by tap-dancing rabbis.
In the present of 1977, she is telling the story to her fascinated granddaughter. Meanwhile, all of her acting-troop companions from the old days, although all dead, interact and chat with her.
Much of the plot revolves around the tension between Raisel and her daughter Red, a divorced television writer who is frustrated with her mother’s medical issues and is contemplating sending her to an elderly-care facility. Secrets regarding the daughter’s birth and upbringing are eventually revealed in Act Two.
The story, in spite of its historical and generational overtones, comes off as an unsuccessful attempt to mix the grimness of the Holocaust with light, hackneyed humor. Most of the show drags endlessly, especially an elongated death scene at the end.
The songs, in spite of a lively Kletzmer sound, are forgettable and occasionally seem as if they were designed to mimic Fiddler on the Roof.
Nevertheless, Murphy handles herself like a pro. Her idiosyncratic, razor-sharp comic delivery and powerhouse voice are on full display as she transforms from moment to moment. The rest of the cast, which includes many Broadway veterans, has spirit but doesn’t register much of an impression.