nytheatre.com review by Leslie Bramm
February 26, 2012
David Nowakowsky (1848-1921) wrote thousands and thousands of pages of music. Mostly known for his creation of beautiful synagogue music, he was lauded by Tchaikovsky and feared by Wagner; still, little of this master’s work is known today. Few pieces have ever been published. This is for one very simple reason—Nowakowsky was a Russian Jew at a time in history when being a Jew anywhere in Europe was not safe. Ron Graner’s Musical Pawns takes us through the early life of Nowakowsky, as his young genius emerges. He was gifted, even the Nazis can hear it. Graner also gives us a couple of intriguing subplots. Nowakowsky’s family has to hide his work for fear of it being burned, then years later have to track it down to make sure it survived. What the play said to me is how can one group of people condemn another as inferior when they can make such beautiful music.
Musical Pawns is powered by many good ideas. However, Graner’s skill seems to be more academic and not that of a dramatist. The plot clunks along providing only a thumbnail sketch of the characters and story, almost as if it were an essay put up on its feet. The dialogue is peppered with cultural clichés to the point the characters verge on caricature, for example, the borscht belt lawyer, replete with tropical shirt, who keeps cracking one-liners. Add that to Nowakowsky’s son who lives to find his father’s music. This remarkable old man is played by a young woman in a wig and costume that make her resemble Harpo Marx. To his credit Graner uses a lot of Yiddish, and the play is bejeweled with Jewish custom and ritual. He made it easy for this goy to understand.
The play is not quite a musical, but more a drama with songs. All the actors are good singers, and it’s an ensemble performance in the classic sense. Each plays multiple roles, genders and ages. There is not a weak link in this chain. Standout performances are given by Michael Lepock as Blumenthal, Emmanuelle Zeesman as Mme Marise, and Meredith Zwicker as Sophie.
Lindi G. Papoff and David Hersh split the directing duties and both do a fine job. The play has an excellent rhythm to it. The choral and religious hymns used as scene breaks are a great idea and set the mood perfectly.
Graner is a Nowakowsky scholar and his passion for this character is evident in his writing. For all the play’s problems it still serves an important purpose. It brings Nowakowsky’s work to a whole new audience, and it reminds us that there’s a thin line between artistic freedom, or art that celebrates a specific culture, and the political forces on the lunatic fringe ready to burn or ban it.