If Ned Flanders and his fellow amateur thespians on The Simpsons staged a Springfield community musical about Jewish grandmothers and Yiddish theater in prewar Poland and called it The Plotz Thickens!, they could do no worse than The People in the Picture, now singing and dancing near the footlights of desperation at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54.
The musical, about memories of life in the theater (and intermittent pogroms), has a book and lyrics by Broadway newcomer Iris Rainer Dart, best known for the novel that became the Bette Midler-Barbara Hershey schmaltzfest Beaches. The music is by Mike Stoller (half of the famous songwriting team with Jerry Leiber, who wrote ”Jailhouse Rock”) and Artie Butler. The central figure, a little old bubbie (grandmother) named Raisel, is played by Donna Murphy, the slinky, strong-featured, Tony-winning stage star best known away from New York’s theater district as the voice of Mother Gothel in Disney’s Tangled. The credentials may be promising, but the resulting picture isn’t pretty.
Or as Raisel herself sings in one of the outstandingly forgettable, trite songs that slow up the show, ”Man plans and God laughs/My mother used to say, and it’s true/When man schemes, God chuckles/He must be quite amused by me and you.”
Part of the problem — the reason the show pants from scene to scene like a nursing-home resident — is the glut of melodrama Dart has loaded into her script. The people in the title keepsake photo of Raisel’s old Warsaw theater troupe may now be dead, but the former song-and-dance star is intent on safekeeping their memory by bringing each one alive. So she recounts a series of stories to her very New York-wise 10-year-old granddaughter, Jenny (Rachel Resheff). Out come the tales: This one died this way, that one died that way. Out come the interpretive dances. No one fiddles on a roof, but some do dance circles around Tevye-approved milk cans. (The fellow thespians are played, with broad gestures, by a motley cast including Joyce Van Patten, Chip Zien, and Lewis J. Stadlen.)
When she’s not retreating into her memories, Bubbie is caught in a struggle with her grown daughter, Red (Nicole Parker), circa 1977. Red, the divorced mother of Jenny, is a TV writer who kvetches about her job in song: ”Here’s a headline/I have got a pressing deadline/This could be a real all-nighter/Don’t let your kid be a writer.” Naturally, Red has issues with the way Raisel brought her up. Mother and daughter fight. Granddaughter hates the squabbling. Bubbie tries to set up Red with the nice Jewish doctor Bubbie sees when she has heart trouble. Red wants to put Bubbie into a senior home. Jenny has to sit still and listen a lot with a rapt expression on her face, something Resheff does with fearsome enthusiasm. (She originated the role of Young Fiona in Broadway’s Shrek the Musical.)
The abstract, looming set design by Riccardo Hernandez uses elements of a picture frame — the ornament, miter joints, and gilt coating — to suggest everything from a shattered portrait to woodwork restoration. The metaphor is heavy-handed. But why should that aspect of this night at the theater be different from any other? D+
(Tickets: Roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300)