‘Signs of Life’ at American University by Jessica Vaughan

American University staged a very special reading of a very special musical Signs of Life about an important part of our history. It was billed as a drama with music, and that is the simple truth of this extraordinary piece.

A woman named Virginia Criste travelled to the Czech Republic to learn more about Terazin or Teresienstadt in German), a unique ghetto set up by the Nazis for the artists, painters, and “privileged” Jews where her Grandparents died. She commissioned this musical to remember. Music is – and I think always will be – how we tell our most difficult and painful stories. Ms. Criste was in the audience for this performance.


Peter Ullian wrote the book – a tight script layered with meaning and many moments of subtle humor and solid impact. He explores all the ways people cope – by obeying, fighting, subverting, or working the system, both in acts of selfishness and selflessness. He weaves together the stories of his characters so well. It is an ensemble piece about two German officers and seven Jews and spans a time in Terazin just before and after a visit by the Red Cross as they attempt to beautify everything, including staging a play within a play, and trying to survive by staying off the transport trains “East.” East of Terazin is Auschwitz and the powerful song “Home Again Soon” as they discover just what that means is heart-wrenching.

Len Schiff wrote the lyrics and Joel Derfner wrote the music, a combination of jazzy, and 40’s, (at one point people were scat singing in Yiddish in “Golemspiel”), mixed with ballads like “Find a Way to Live” and complicated sung conversations more reminiscent of a rock opera than a musical in “City for the Jews” as the Red Cross visits and “Seder.” I hope they release a CD as I found myself wanting to listen again.

The play opens with the ensemble song “Something Out of Nothing” exploring both the art of survival and the art of making art. This production, directed by American University Professor Gail Humphries Mardirosian, truly made something out of nothing from the first affecting moments of two soldiers offering a silent “Heil Hitler!” to the sound of a train pulling into the station, to an almost complete staging of the work with only a week of rehearsal. Musical Director Christopher Wingert played the piano, and a few recorded sounds rounded out the atmosphere. A narrator (James Randle) reads out locations and stage directions to paint a more complete picture of the work.

Two video screens with pictures of real art from Terazin play silently in the background. Izzy Bartolotta, who also plays Berta Pluhar, designed the set. She sings “I Will Forget” at the end in a nuanced performance of this difficult role.

The production received some tips from veteran Broadway Director, arranger and composer Paul Bogaev, who won his first Grammy Award for Aida. He consulted on the project and staged a Master Class with the cast.

The cast members are all talented singers and actors. They are American University students and alumni, plus 12-year-old Ethan Miller (Wulfie Schumann) from the local program BRAVO@KAT, training for young actors with Kensington Arts Theatre. Miller is as precocious as his character with a beautiful singing voice and great poise.

Malva Schaleck (1882-1944). Courtyard, Terezín — 1941-1943
Malva Schaleck (1882-1944). Courtyard, Terezín — 1941-1943

Ben Gibson (Officer Heindel) and Shannon McArdle (Commandant Rahm) play German officers with slightly over-the-top accents, but bring excellent menace in their roles as bureaucrat and believer. Gibson has a very powerful voice for his song “Good,” where he justifies what he’s done. Matt Rubbelke and Lisa Michelle (Simon Muller and Lorelei Schumann) play young lovers in the camp who get caught up in resistance through art. They are sweet together with good chemistry and strong voices. John Fritz (Kurt Gerard) plays a famous celebrity who must grow a conscience in his powerful solo “To Make a Man.” Joel Iscaro plays a Jew, a Soviet, and an American Red Cross worker, transforming for each role. Tony Cohn (Jacob Schumann) is the patriarch who easily summons the gravitas of a much, much older man.

From here, members of the production will travel to the Czech Republic and perform at Terazin itself. This musical is an important addition to the vital work of remembrance and a beautiful, worthy piece of art all on its own. The residents of Terazin showed how vital art is to being human, and watching these young actors explore the humor, heart, and heartbreak made for the most inspirational piece of theater I have seen in a long time.

Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute introduction.

Signs of Life ended its run today at American University’s The Katzen Arts Center – 4400 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, in Washington, DC. For future events, check their calendar of events.


Signs of Life website.

Listen to the songs of the shows.



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