Inspired by the true story of the titular group of university student-activists who took a stand against Hitler and led a youthful resistance against oppression and brutality in Nazi Germany, White Rose: The Musical, by Brian Belding (book and lyrics) and Natalie Brice (music), is making its world premiere in NYC in a limited Off-Broadway engagement at Theatre Row, presented in association with NewYorkRep. Directed by Will Nunziata, the overall mood is one of idealism and optimism in the face of unconscionable horrors, despite the fatal consequences of doing what’s right.
At the center of the historically based narrative, set in 1942-43 Munich and Freiburg, are real-life siblings Sophie and Hans Scholl, who enlist a courageous group of classmates and their professor Kurt Huber into writing, printing, and distributing critical leaflets challenging the propaganda, hatred, and genocide of the Third Reich. Through their secret campaign, they face threatening encounters with members of the Gestapo and police, including their longtime friend and love interest Frederick Fischer, who does what he can to protect them and tries to convince Sophie to “Run Away” with him to the safety of Switzerland. Sophie also befriends a shopkeeper, who goes by the name of Lila and gives her the mimeograph machine and journal she needs to create the flyers, but has a hidden identity that could put her in mortal danger, so chooses not to become actively involved in the White Rose and its cause.
A cast of ten, led by Jo Ellen Pellman as Sophie and Mike Cefalo as Hans, delivers the story through nineteen musical numbers that range from hopeful show-tune ballads (“My Calling”) and anthems (“We Will Not Be Silent”) to anachronistic rock-and-roll (“I Don’t Care”), with music direction and arrangements by Sheela Ramesh, orchestrations by Charlie Rosen, and standout vocals by Laura Sky Herman as Lila (“The Stars”), Kennedy Kanagawa as White Rose activist Christoph Probst (“Fatherhood”), and Sam Gravitte as Frederick (“Air Raid”). And while we get glimpses of some of the characters’ motivations – Lila’s and Frederick’s are the most explicit and believably conflicted among them; Cole Thompson as White Rose’s Willi Graff has an emotional outburst; and we hear a little about the Scholls’ parents, in addition to their own childhood participation in Hitler’s Youth and the female equivalent – their backgrounds and beliefs, though all documented in history, are not fully fleshed-out here, rendering them somewhat superficial and, consequently, not fully credible in their resistance and self-sacrifice. Rounding out the cast are Paolo Montalban as Prof. Huber, with Cal Mitchell and Aaron Ramey in multiple supporting roles.
The show’s artistic design is simple and functional, featuring period-style costumes and Nazi uniforms by Sophia Choi and hair and wigs by Liz Printz, a bi-level stationary set by James Noone with a background brick wall, ironwork balcony (from which the Nazi judge delivers the protagonists’ sentences), and pieces of movable wooden furniture and a vintage mimeo machine, with Caite Hevner’s black-and-white projections of photographs of the historic figures and the actual dates of the wartime scenes. Alan C. Edwards’ lighting provides focused spotlights and a mood-shifting flood of red, and Elisabeth Weidner’s sound includes occasional explosions, gunshots, and sirens.
Without question, the story of White Rose is one worth telling and its courageous young martyrs should never be forgotten, but the light-hearted spirit of the current musical is a jarring contrast to its horrific outcome and events. For me, the production would be more effective if the characters were given more emotional depth and three-dimensionality, the Nazi atrocities against which they rebelled were more prominently featured in the staging, and the musical stylings were more in keeping with those of the era.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, without intermission.
White Rose: The Musical plays through Sunday, March 31, 2024, at Theatre Row, Theatre Three, 410 West 42nd Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $37.50-87.50, including fees), call (212) 714-2442, ext. 45, or go online.