At the opening-night intermission of Signs of Life, I overheard a conversation among a group of twentysomething theatergoers in the row behind me. "I don't know," one was saying tentatively to her friends about the piece, set in Theresienstadt, or Terezin, the ghetto that the Third Reich presented to Red Cross inspectors as a model settlement for Jewish artists but that in reality served as a staging site for transport to Auschwitz. "It just seems weird to do this kind of story as a musical."
There's nothing inherently wrong with treating a Holocaust story as fodder for musical theater, of course; in the right hands, the form can be fit for any subject. What I suspect was really making my young neighbor uncomfortable is the wildly fluctuating, and often strangely jokey, tone of the show's first act. The piece follows a small clutch of Jewish inmates who initially cooperate with the Nazis' "beautification" program in advance of the Red Cross visit, sprucing up public areas, putting on a theater performance and literally painting pretty pictures.
The show's driving storyline, about efforts to subvert the Nazis' peaceful propaganda by getting sketches of the real conditions out into the world, is contrasted with clichéd, goofy flirtations between young artist Lorelei (Megan Long) and fellow teenager Simon (Matt Edmonds), including a running joke about him imagining her naked. Lorelei's younger brother, Wolfie (Brennan Dougherty), is presented as a sitcom-typical precocious kid seemingly unaffected by his situation, while the pretentious Kurt (Jason Collins), a cabaret star in the outside world, grouses about the living conditions and jokes darkly about his assistant "abandoning" him by being hanged in the public square (gallows humor has never been so unrhetorical). Interspersed are a number of interchangeable ballads, not to mention an upbeat jazz-vocal retelling of the golem legend.
There's serious Chicago talent on hand for this Chicago premiere of a piece that's had a long and winding development history, including an Off Broadway run in 2010. (It should be clearly noted that Signs of Life is not a Victory Gardens production but rather a commercial staging, renting the space.) As overblown as Joel Derfner's score can be, it's sung with great skill and care, and director Lisa Portes and scenic designer Brian Sidney Bembridge make the whole thing look its best.
Yet the overladen plot comes with too many contrivances and ever-shifting stakes. (Pity the fine actor Doug Pawlik, who portrays the more strident and sadistic of the play's two Nazi officers but is saddled, late in the second act, with selling a plaintive ballad of 11th-hour doubt.) That a cultural life survived in Terezin could absolutely be the basis for an inspiring musical; the treacly, inconsistent Signs of Life isn't it.