The events of World War II, particularly the examination of the devastation inflicted by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime upon the Jews of Europe, have long provided us with compelling theater. Currently there are four different productions playing in New York City that look at various wartime experiences. Broadway has Harmony, Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman’s tale of the internationally celebrated mixed Jewish and gentile singing group known as the Comedian Harmonists, and Joshua Harmon’s Prayer for the French Republic which looks at several generations of a French-Jewish family living in Paris juxtaposing a contemplation of their fragile safety in 2016 against the equally anxious living conditions of Paris in the 1930s and 1940s. Off-Broadway has the remarkable Our Class at BAM’s Fisher Fishman Space that tackles how the Nazi occupation of Poland drove a wedge between the loving camaraderie of five Jews and five Catholics who went through school together only to have the bitter political climate pit each against the other, and the musical, White Rose, being reviewed here.
This is not the first time the subject of the White Rose has been treated dramatically. Director Michael Verhoeven’s film Die Weiße Rose (The White Rose) was very well received in 1982. Sophie Scholl – Die letzten Tage (Sophie Scholl – The Last Days), directed by Marc Rothemund, made the film festival rounds in 2005 to some acclaim. The White Rose, a play by Lillian Garret-Groag, appeared off-Broadway in 1991 starring a soon-to-be star Melissa Leo as Sophie. The true tale of the White Rose as a movement is set apart from the other stories of the Holocaust in that none of the lead characters are Jews.
White Rose depicts the true story of a group of university students in Munich that use their own privilege and capacity for humanity to galvanize the rest of Germany with leaflets intended to help overthrow the Nazi regime. The production is as earnest as the backbone and good intentions of the students. The creators of this show unfortunately have not kept faithful to the actual urgency and terror that the country endured during 1942 and 1943. They give us only two such moments where we feel the horror: when Sophie and her brother Hans hear gunshots that signaled the beginning of forced euthanasia in a clinic as sick and elderly were being shot and killed, and then again when Lila, a new Jewish friend and confidante of Sophie who is in Munich somewhat on the run, packs her things hurriedly and leaves the bookshop she has been managing. Otherwise, there’s oddities in the script’s adherence to time and space. A perfect example of this is when we first meet Sophie getting off the train in Munich. Her vibrancy is more akin to Peggy Sawyer stepping off the bus from Allentown, Pennsylvania in 42nd Street than a young student coming to the big city of Munich to attend university during a world war.
Where the production could have markedly benefitted from a score that sounded more like music of the era at hand, there are some instances where the matching of a character with the performance of a particular song provides the show with its highlights. Aside from “They’re Here Now,” a chilling song about the personal fear of capture for Hans that precedes the students’ walkout at the university, and “Fatherhood,” a bittersweet song about ultimate sacrifice for Christoph, another university student, the best songs are given to characters that don’t necessarily propel the story. “The Stars” is a sad song for Lila that is a hopeful pleading that her family might still be alive and that they both look at the same stars at night. “Air Raid,” for Frederick, the police officer still in love with Sophie, is the most riveting of songs in this score. His character is already resigned to the Allies winning when he admits “when we start to retreat and surrender, what role will I play in the end? I’ve swallowed my morals, beliefs, and the truth… how much further will I have to bend?”
While we are presented with characters who are doing a noble thing and can be touched by what they go through to accomplish their task, Brian Belding’s book and lyrics repeatedly take us out of 1942. In breaking up a fight between her brother and her old flame, Sophie blurts, “Are we seriously doing this?!”…Seriously? The tone is not “then” in 1942, it’s a university student of present day. When Willi walks in on the scene, he asks “What the f*@k is going on?!” We don’t doubt the impulse behind it, but was that really the vernacular in 1942? Natalie Brice’s score has its moments with some of the solos, but the full company songs sound like retreads of Les Miserables chorus numbers. “Munich” sounds like “Blind Eye” sounds like “Why Are You Here?” sounds like “The Mess They Made” sounds like “We Will Not Be Silent.” All are full throttle songs with the same sentiment, so why are there so many?
An insert in the final press night Playbill shows the deletion of two solos, “A Student Appears” for Kurt, the teacher (unfortunately he has no other solo moment in the show); the other would have been an eleventh-hour solo for Sophie, “Find My Way,” which may or may not have provided her onstage epiphany. Her prior solo early on, “My Calling” provides us with “Expose Hitler’s lies and use our own ink/Keep him from telling us what to think/He twists words to his own desire/Now we’ll untwist them;/Use them to inspire!” and we, in the audience, are probably not inspired.
Thankfully some performances keep us thoroughly engaged from start to finish. Sam Gravitte as Frederick, the former student-turned-Nazi-Youth, now a disengaged police officer for the Third Reich, turns in a continuously compelling performance. His solo, “Air Raid,” is at fever pitch moments after he realizes his subordinate is reporting on him. His duet with Sophie, “Run Away,” about the prospect of an escape to Switzerland creates the only true idyllic moment in the show, truly bittersweet when one processes neither one of them will make it out of this war alive.
Mike Cefalo as Hans, Sophie’s brother, gives a knockout performance as the true center of White Rose, the voice of reason in a turbulent setting. A protective brother for Sophie, he is at university to become a medic rather than serve at the front. Like his former friend Frederick, he also fell under the spell of the Nazi Youth movement until he realized it would only lead to the utter destruction of everything he loved about Germany. Cefalo’s early solo, “The Sheep Chose a Wolf,” is a chilling indictment of a country on the verge of not being able to recognize itself anymore, giving us one of the true highlights of the show. Later, his rendition of “They’re Here Now” lays bare the depths of his fear as a young man who will never live to experience finding love, having a family, and living a normal life.
Kennedy Kanagawa as Christoph gives the only other completely focused and rounded out performance on stage. His “soliloquy,” the song “Fatherhood” is heartbreaking in that an audience that is paying attention to the trajectory before them has figured out Christoph will never see his children grow up…worse, he will never even meet the child that his wife is carrying. This speaks harrowingly of the sacrifices he makes for the future of a family he will never really know…and the patriotism that goes unquestioned.
Cole Thompson as Willi Graf is given the worst solo of the score, “I Don’t Care,” anachronistic in its sound, and it doesn’t give us a reason to like him, much less care about the fact that he doesn’t care. Sadly, for him, it comes after what portends to be a rousing show opener, “Munich,” but that never really goes anywhere. We don’t learn enough about Sophie in the song to realize that she is meant to be the voice of the show. We learn she would rather escape the watchful eyes of her parents by going to university where she can find her own voice. What little we understand of her parents over the course of the show, particularly her father who gets arrested, is that the “anarchy apple” doesn’t fall very far from the tree, so one would think the parents would be beaming with pride when she is being hunted down for the creation and distribution of lawless leaflets.
As Sophie, Jo Ellen Pellman starts out at “ten” and has nowhere to go with her character. She verbally tackles the professor in front of the class with rarefied opinions about who is the best poet, not realizing the man is just doing his job regurgitating the new tastes of the Fuhrer. Moments later when Hans and Sophie show up in Lila’s bookshop, Sophie snide remarks to a Gestapo officer, “Why bother buying something you’re just going to burn?,” cause Hans and Frederick to keep this insolence from escalating into a dumpster fire. As written, White Rose seems more about an insufferable girl who always gets her way though, ultimately means well, rather than a smart girl who chooses her battles wisely.
The character of Kurt is embarrassingly underutilized in the show. He is the only “adult” not offered up as a misinformed or terrified sheep, or worse, a puppet of the Third Reich. The usually wonderful Paolo Montalban deserved better lines, and a more complex mentor role, and no doubt would have provided a thoughtful and intuitive take on a now missing-from-the-score solo. He still manages to turn in a haunting and steady mentoring to all the patriotic frenzy around him. Laura Sky Herman as Lila, and later as the underground contact Alex Schmidt, is quite adept at making the audience feel for her characters in her brief stage time. Cal Mitchell and Aaron Ramey provide up-to-the-challenge performances in their doubly cast roles despite the fact the roles are not fleshed out in the writing.
Director Will Nunziata does manage to keep the show moving at a brisk pace, but a stronger hand in developing the sense of time and space for the actors (please, it’s Germany in the early 1940’s) would have made the show easier to digest. Sophia Choi’s costumes are sublime and always keep us firmly in the era despite everything else going on. The scenic design by James Noone design is spare, yet very much on the mark. Alan C. Edwards’ lighting design captures the pervading gloom of a country bereft of its sunshine.
White Rose: The Musical (through March 31, 2024)
Theatre Three at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.bfany.org/theatre-row/shows/white-rose-a-new-musical
Running time: 95 minutes without an intermission