Spirit of Broadway's NUMBER THE STARS a child's eye view of World War II
Triple-threat composer, lyricist and book-writer Sean Hartley has returned to Norwich’s Spirit of Broadway with an expanded version of his musical adaptation of Lois Lowry’s beloved 1989 Newbery Award-winning novel, Number the Stars. With three productions of other Hartley musicals -- Little Women, Cupid & Psyche and last season’s Snow -- Spirit of Broadway has become a welcoming artistic home for this burgeoning talent.
At a sold-out matinee filled with children who have grown to love the young adult story, there was an undeniable pre-show energy in the intimate thrust space (partly because Lowry herself was in the audience).
Number the Stars centers around two families during the World War II occupation of Denmark. One family of Christians has two daughters, the innocent Annemarie and the precocious Kirsti, and has lost a third, Lise. The other family is the Rosens, a young Jewish mother and her daughter Ellen. After three years, the terror of Germanic invasion has settled into an unfortunate way of life. When the Nazis begin to enforce the closure of Jewish businesses and start to round up Jews to be shipped off to parts unknown, Annemarie’s family are determined to help Mrs. Rosen and Ellen escape to neutral Sweden.
As with Snow, Hartley has outfitted the narrative with a number of terrific, melodic songs. In particular, “The Robin and the Rosebud,” “L’Shana Tova,” “When the Moon is Hidden from the Sea,” and the title song show he is a gifted musical theatre composer/lyricist. A few songs like the show opener “I’ll Tell You Just a Little” and “Who’s to Say?” have somewhat clunky lyrics, but one must remember that this is a dramatization of a children’s story with much of the intended audience being children. Hartley’s transformation and expansion of the book into a stage piece is mostly sound. For adults familiar with the atrocities of the Nazis, it is an opportunity to learn more about the less-familiar occupation of Denmark. For children, it is a good primer on how a fearsome evil can sometimes seize a land.
The central conflict is what one would expect of a Holocaust tale (jack-booted Nazis stomp in, terrorize, and Jews must flee with the aid of their friends). The show’s book could use a bit more of a personal obstacle for the central character of Annemarie to overcome. Late in the play when she volunteers to run a package through enemy territory to her uncle it seems like a ripe opportunity, but she has not discovered a courage she did not have before nor is the package all that meaningful to the tale. Maria von Trapp has her faith-vs.-feelings conflict. Anne Frank struggles with the transition from childhood to womanhood while in hiding. Further development can make Annemarie’s journey more vital to the tale.
The cast is marvelous. The trio of children who play the Danish girls -- Vera Farina, Abby Rain Heiser, and Aysia Reed -- are all terrific and without affectation. Anne Fowler is a standout as the ghostly Lise, displaying an achingly beautiful singing voice. Spirit of Broadway MVP Corrado Alicata (so wonderful in Boy in the Bathroom) returns with his soaring tenor as Uncle Henrik. Shawn Rucker, a muse for director Brett Bernadini, turns in her finest performance as Annemarie’s Mama. Kristin Lattin delivers a modulated and heartfelt rendering of the terrified Mrs. Rosen. Connor Harvey as the Danish Resistance leader Peter does a fantastic job with the ballad, “Number the Stars.”
Bernardini knows his space and its limitations and works the cast admirably. There is one unfortunate scene involving grim reapers with lanterns on sticks representing the titular stars, reminiscent of the similarly unfortunate drug trip in Mr. Hartley’s Snow. Other than this misstep, this Number the Stars is worthy and moving.