Prototype Festival 2020: Iron and Coal

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Susan Brodie - Toi Toi ToiSinger-songwriter Jeremy Schonfeld penned and starred in this multi-media concert featuring solo performances by Schonfeld, Rinde Eckert, and Daniel Rowan, backed by the new music ensemble Contemporaneous, the New York-based chorus MasterVoices, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. A meditation by the son of an Auschwitz survivor, based in part on the survivor’s memoir, the 90 minute piece traces the lifetime process of coming to terms with a painful history which is never quite made explicit. 

Rinde Eckert, the Old Father, looks back at a difficult time (photo: Jill Steinberg)

Director Kevin Newbury filled the stage of the theater at John Jay College with some 200 performers. Front and center was Schonfeld, seated in profile at a baby grand, a mike at his mouth. He was flanked by two singing actors playing the young and old father, and behind them were the instrumental ensemble. At the rear of the stage, semi-obscured by a scrim which also served as a screen for video and animation (by Thomas Seltzer, S. Katy Tucker), were the adult and children’s chorus. The loose chronology of the father’s life emerged in a series of narrative flashbacks, illustrated with images projected above the chorus. The faces of the choral singers behind the scrim cleverly blended into the projected images of crowds of deportees and prisoners.

The songs were written in a straightforward contemporary pop style that this non-expert would describe as Billy Joel goes Broadway. When Schonfeld sang, solo, about his relationship with his father, a Holocaust survivor, he accompanied himself with simple keyboard chords and figurations. The instrumental ensemble filled in with anything from a solo accordion to an amplified rock orchestra as the older actor narrated events from his life and sang contemplative ballads, and the younger actor filled in with prayers and songs expressing the young man’s optimism. Hebrew prayers were sung by the chorus, and a couple of up-tempo numbers added variety.

Performances were strong and confident. Rinde Eckert as the Old Father delivered charisma, gravitas, and a strong singing voice. Sweet-voiced Daniel Rowan was endearing as the Young Father, aging from early adolescent to young parent. The versatile musicians of the Brooklyn-based new music ensemble Contemporaneous, led by the group’s co-artistic director David Bloom (who arranged the score), added accordion and an array of guitars to the usual classical ensemble.

Despite a compelling premise, the work never quite hit the mark emotionally. Even with the inclusion of several Hebrew prayer settings the subject wasn’t too “niche,”—the recent rash of antisemitic attacks must alarm everyone—but the writing wasn’t bold enough for the big stage treatment. The discreet, ruminative lyrics, couched in obscure and sometimes banal language, would have worked as cabaret, but the grandiose format wanted a more extroverted book. Such a loaded story needs to wear its heart on its sleeve, but Schonfeld, his gaze fixed offstage or on the keyboard, never even looked at the audience.

 While this sense of an unspoken burden may well reflect the experience of growing up in a family of survivors, it takes more than discreet suggestion to cross the footlights. I wasn’t the only one looking at my watch. I would love to see this performed with an instrumental sextet and no more than eight back-up singers, or with a revised libretto that doesn’t jump around chronologically.

Stay tuned for more Prototype reports to come.

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