By JON KAPLAN
Te-Amim Music Theatre has an admirable goal: to promote the understanding of cultural differences, with a focus on the Holocaust. Its first Holocaust-based drama for high schools, a musical adaptation of The Shop On Main Street, makes a worthy subject and narrative.
You might know the story from the Oscar-winning film of the 60s, which in turn was based on a novel by Czech author Ladislav Grosman. In a small Slovakian town, Tono Brtko (Michael Rawley), a discontented carpenter -- married to a money-hungry wife (Lada Darewych) and whose in-laws (Rosemary Doyle and Clyde Witham) have ties to the Nazi party -- reluctantly takes on the job of "Aryanizing" a dry-goods shop owned by elderly Jewish widow Mrs. Lautman (Valerie Boyle). The Jews of the town, including the barber (Gerry Salsberg) pay him off for taking care of the rather deaf Mrs. Lautman and not letting her know his true role in her shop. As the Nazi plan for deportation of the Jews moves forward without the townspeople knowing about it, Tono discovers that he's grown fond of the woman he's supposed to supplant.
It's a powerful story, dealing with the responsibility one person has for another, basic kindness and an awareness that being Other doesn't make someone any less human. Director Mark Cassidy plays up the themes nicely, and the cast works hard for him. The design by Ann Powell and David Powell is simple, with the actors in understated greys (as if they were camp inmates), dressed up occasionally with hats, scarves and a few props. A series of washlines hung with sheets and tableclothes provides an easily changed set.
But they're all hobbled by the book and lyrics by Bernard Spiro and score by David Nagy. The humour is heavy-handed, the characters rarely more than sketched in, the narrative climax an offstage event that's not clearly presented to the audience.
The music has a retro feel to it, almost all the numbers blandly forgettable; rhymes are of the other-shoe-falling variety and the musical envelope never pushed. Exceptions are two of Tono's songs, an early ballad about dealing with the widow (Someone To Do For) and a later song in which he tries to convince himself that the deportees mean nothing to him (Who Are They To Me?). There's one point of interest in the songs, in that the Slovak Jewish sympathizers like Tono and town crier Piti Bachi (A. Frank Ruffo) sing melodies with a Hebraic feel.
Rawley creates the most rounded character, going from henpecked grumbler to a man who comes alive when he discovers the warmth of his charge. Rawley transforms physically as well as emotionally; he collapses into himself when he's around his family and actually grows in stature when he's around Lautman and Katz. The performance is rich and memorable. The only other performer who catches our attention is Doyle, whose finery-loving wife of a Nazi sympathizer has a sharp, snobby bite.
Too bad this Shop is so threadbare; it could be stocked with real dramatic goods.