For an evening of theater — or, in this case, opera — “Brundibar” and “Comedy on the Bridge” offer an interesting change from what might expect at the Yale Rep. Both are adaptations of Czech one-act operas from the late 1930s and early 1940s formed from a collaboration between celebrated playwright Tony Kushner and renowned children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak. Each play deals with the themes of oppression and a corresponding fight for survival.
Talented as the singers are, it should be noted that they draw more from Broadway than opera its more classic sense.
Taken individually, there are many exceptional elements in “Comedy on the Bridge,” which plays first in this pairing.
The production boasts a very talented cast. Anjali Bhimani gives a wonderfully Eastern European feel to her character, Popelka. When Popelka speaks, one hears and sees a woman who, while coquettish, has a distinct tinge of something Hungarian or perhaps Czech. The other members of the cast also perform well, transforming what are at first glance fairly stock characters into individuals with distinct lives and vivacity.
Maurice Sendak applies his childlike sense of vision to the set. The ravenous fish that inhabit the river below the bridge take on a ferocity from the long, foam teeth Sendak has placed in their mouths.
At times, Kushner’s lyrics seem a bit artificial. Some of this may lie in the difficulty not only of translation but also of sculpting that translation to fit the music.
The music itself is not a particular highlight of the show; the piece seems too long for melodic expression. Still, some of the ensemble singing grabs the audience’s attention. Here the comedy of the situation begins to play through as the characters on stage begin to interact at a whole new level.
But all of the wonderful elements of “Comedy on the Bridge” are amplified in “Brundibar,” the real centerpiece of the evening. The two may share some themes, but “Brundibar” was the founding basis of Sendak and Kushner’s partnership when they collaborated on the original adaptation as a children’s book.
The perspective offered to the audience is very much that of the protagonists, two young children. The set pieces of the town put the audience at the level of the children, with buildings seeming to tower over them.
Here, Sendak’s fascination with colors plays a vital role in creating the world of the opera. The set has colors shifted in tone from what one might expect to generally drab shades, though they are sometimes punctuated by flares of brighter pigments. The outcome suggests a world that is slightly surreal, but is exactly the kind one can imagine existing through the eyes of a child. This is also a world filled with the mundane, but imbued with a sense of imagination and energy.
These colors play out in the costuming, as well. From the bright green in one of the children’s coats to the colors placed through the costumes, the effect of a slightly surreal world is further developed with clothing ever-so-slightly askew.
This is a show about a child’s world, and it is only appropriate that children play two of the chief characters, Pepicek and Aninku. Aaron Simon Gross, who plays the young boy Pepicek, stands out, singing with a strong and beautiful tone.
The Youth Ensemble is another highlight of this production, especially in “Brundibar,” where they are used extensively in singing and performing. Drawn from local schools and choirs, these children perform beautifully both in acting and singing.
Hints of Judaism are subtly placed in the fabric of the show, suggesting the inspiration for the piece by a Jewish composer. From the Star of David on a building in the background to the bearded milkman, these touches suggest this background without making that the center of the piece.
All of these elements bring to life a story that is at its essence children taking control of their lives and ending a sense of victimization. This staging of “Brundibar” is able to suggest the tragic context of this story, which was first performed in orphanages and concentration camps, while also keeping a sense of the child-like nature of the play. Providing this context may be the best value to “Comedy on the Bridge,” which, as a more explicit tale of war, primes the audience to think of these lingering tragedies.