Moshe Ze’ev Flinker from Holland. Renia Spiegel and Dawid Rubinowicz from Poland. Eva Heyman from Romania. Yitskhok Rudashevski from Lithuania. They are the “Witnesses” of CCAE Theatricals’ first original musical, five Jewish teenagers whose secret diaries chronicled their faith and courage in the face of the unspeakable atrocities of the Holocaust.
The diaries were the source material for the show conceived more than a decade ago by Jordan Beck, managing producer of CCAE Theatricals at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido. The teenage diarists’ entries of pain and poignancy have been dramatized in music and song by five teams of composers and lyricists, with Beck himself having co-written some of “Witnesses’” numbers.
That this ambitious undertaking has resulted in a world-premiere production that is so thoughtfully staged is a triumph for the two-year-old CCAE Theatricals.
The book by Robert L. Freedman (“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”) underlies a score that is heavily anthemic and always searching. Of the teens’ stories, the most resonating are those of Yitskhok (Austyn Myers), whose songs were written by Matt Gould, composer of the music for La Jolla Playhouse’s “Lempicka,” and Renia (Camille Umoff), for whom Anna K. Jacobs (Diversionary Theatre’s stellar “Harmony, Kansas” in 2012) composed the lyrics and music.
Yitskhok’s “We Are Here” finds the teenager inspired by his teacher in the ghetto into which he was forced, then devastated by the loss that ensues. Myers’ performance is even more stirring in the graphic “Trip to the Butcher,” the title of which says it all.
The tenderness and desperate hope of “Witnesses” is best expressed in Umoff’s Renia, whether when writing about her sweetheart (“If I Let Him Read It”) or the mother from whom she’s separated (“If Mama Were Here”). Umoff, a vocalist with a gift for reflection, also takes the lead on two of the musical’s emotional centerpieces, “Another Renia (The World Is Upside Down)” and “Even in the Darkest Moments.”
Another standout voice in the cast belongs to Afra Sophia Tully as Eva Heyman. There is clear commitment in her rendering of “Agi Says” and dignity personified when 13-year-old Eva is sent to the gas chamber at Auschwitz in “On That Day.” These songs were written by New York composer Carmel Dean and lyricist Mindi Dickstein (Broadway’s “Little Women”).
“Witnesses” is directed by J. Scott Lapp, artistic director at CCAE Theatricals, who has collaborated with Beck from the very beginning. Lisa LeMay conducts a solid seven-piece orchestra that includes herself on piano.
The moments onstage when the teens’ diary entries are read without music are among the most searing in the entire 90-minute production. Like the better-known Anne Frank, these young people expressed in words the terrible and the inconceivable. That they did so bravely is their legacy.
Note: There will be three post-performance talkbacks in the theater during the run of “Witnesses”: July 17, July 21 and July 28.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sunday. Through July 30.
Where: California Center for the Arts, Escondido, 340 N. Escondido Blvd., Escondido
Phone: (800) 988-4253
Coddon is a freelance writer.