November 1, 2010

An epic, important “Wallenberg”

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One of the most stirring moments in “Wallenberg” — the epic musical now in its world premiere at the White Plains Performing Arts Center — comes at the top of Act 2, when Budapest’s Jews are huddled on a boxcar in late 1944, bound for certain death in a Nazi extermination camp.

A single hand juts through a barred window and we hear the song, “Prayer.”

“Oh, Lord, hear our desperate cry. Please, Lord, don’t stand idly by. This can’t be what you have planned. Won’t you stay the devil’s hand?”

By the song’s end — as the lyrics “please rescue us, somehow” echo — that one hand gives way to one man, Raoul Wallenberg, standing atop the boxcar, targeted by Nazi gunmen.

“This train isn’t going anywhere until every one of my Swedish citizens is released,” he shouts.

Long before the word “heroic” was applied to Little League pitchers who strike out the side, Raoul Wallenberg was a genuine hero. The Swedish businessman-turned-diplomat’s efforts, reportedly saved 100,000 Hungarian Jews in late 1944.

True story: When he learned that the Nazis would tie three Jews together, shoot one and throw all three in the Danube to drown, he hired swimmers to fish them out.

For the last half of 1944, the 32-year-old was everywhere, one man doing what he could to make a difference.

With a cast of 26 and 29 songs (plus reprises), “Wallenberg” is a big, ambitious musical at an ambitiously refocused White Plains Performing Arts Center.

Directed by WPPAC’s artistic director, Annette Jolles, it is the first endeavor in a season of new musicals and plays at the venue in the City Center mall in downtown White Plains.

The book and lyrics are by Kleban Award-winning librettists Laurence Holzman of Dobbs Ferry and Felicia Needleman of Larchmont, who serve as the venue’s executive director and literary manager. The music of “Wallenberg” is by Benjamin Rosenbluth.

As the title character, Broadway veteran Scott Mikita (“Phantom of the Opera”) rarely stands still, a young man in a hurry, thinking on his feet, browbeating foot soldiers, hobnobbing with Hungarian officials and going toe-to-toe with Adolf Eichmann, the pit bull dispatched by Hitler to dispose of Budapest’s Jews.

Mikita’s voice is strong and clear and his portrayal finds the nuances the role requires. In Mikita, Wallenberg is charming, thoughtful, cornered, quick-thinking, desperate, emotional and driven. If there aren’t many warts on our hero, there are certainly many shades to the man, shades Mikita fleshes out in a heartfelt and three-dimensional performance.

Joe Cassidy does fine work as Eichmann, whom he plays with oily charm and confidence born of the single-minded pursuit of one goal.

The 80-minute first act is nearly as long as many contemporary Broadway musicals, which have become intermissionless affairs.

There are many storylines — perhaps too many.

There’s the pregnant widow and her daughter (Lauren Lebowitz and Sophia Roth), the baroness and her fascist husband (Leah Horowitz and Mark Campbell), the orphan who looks up to Wallenberg (Benjamin Milan-Polisar), and the downtrodden Jews of Budapest played by an excellent, full-throated ensemble.

If Act 1 lags under all those stories, “Wallenberg” hits its stride in Act 2.

Wallenberg shares the fears and uncertainty he can’t write in letters home in “Can I Tell You?” a duet Mikita sings with Alice Evans as his mother, Maj.

“Three Hungry Fisherman,” a sort of nursery rhyme, arrives ingeniously at one of the evening’s tensest moments, as Wallenberg and two compatriots wait along the Danube to see if the swimmers will succeed or not.

Rosenbluth’s score is effectively eclectic, from the liltingly optimistic “The Lilacs Will Bloom” to the whirling klezmer feel of “Another One of Us.”

And there’s “Anna,” a breathtaking ballad that Wallenberg’s driver, the impeccable Nick Verina as Vilmos, sings about his lost wife. It ebbs and flows from the simple to the lush.

The production values are high here.

Darren Cohen’s off-stage orchestra is note perfect and doesn’t overpower. The sound, by Jim van Bergen and Michael Eisenberg, is fine. Gail Baldoni’s costumes are period and evoke the time.

Lauren Helpern’s platformed set that employs sliding panels to suggest settings, with the sparest of furniture. Chris Dallos’ lighting design effectively creates mood.

Jolles directs briskly — but not at breakneck speed — in a show that runs close to three hours.

In an age when commercial theater looks to movies and comic books for source material, “Wallenberg” is an important, sweeping work about a man whose story is largely lost to history.

In the end, Wallenberg couldn’t save them all — or himself. He disappeared in 1945 after meeting with Soviet officials in Budapest.

But his legacy lives on in the descendants of those he saved.

It’s in, as the final song relates, “A Million Tomorrows” his work made possible.