Ethel sings – off key
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Ethel sings – off key

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Cast tries hard, but musical offers little insight into the Rosenbergs.

While some theatergoers may be put off by the very idea of a play about Ethel and Julius Rosenberg that includes musical numbers, I am not among them.

Contemporary musicals handle all kinds of serious and controversial subject matter, from presidential assassinations to the lynching of Leo Frank and the trials of the Scottsboro boys. In those shows – some more successfully than others – the music expands our understanding of the historical events. One cannot say the same for “Ethel Sings,” a new play by Joan Beber about the woman who was executed in 1953, along with her husband, for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Here, the large multiracial cast breaking into disparate musical genres, including an African dance number and a jazzy courtroom tune, further muddles a play that is uncertain about its purpose.

The story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s trial and execution is well known and has been covered in books, memoirs, movies, and plays. It now is widely accepted that Julius was a Soviet spy, Ethel an unsuspecting dupe, their trial a farce, and anti-Semitism and anti-communist hysteria were critical factors in their executions.

What new insights, then, does “Ethel Sings” present? Not many that I could discern. Julius is still the true believer, Ethel seems to be a flighty, foolish woman, daydreaming about the time she played St. Joan in high school, worrying about her parenting skills, and passionately devoted to Julius. Her brother, David Greenglass, is presented as a foolish lout, and her sister-in-law, Ruth, as a slut. Ethel’s mother is treated with the most contempt, including being provided with an entirely unconvincing Yiddish accent and stereotypical demeanor. All of these characters are little more than caricatures, and in the case of Mrs. Greenglass, a deeply offensive caricature.

The play opens in Sing Sing, where both Julius and Ethel were imprisoned, and then moves back in time to the early 1930, when the couple first met at a Young Communist League meeting. At the start, Ethel is talking about angels and sin and how she’s like St. Joan, bizarrely Christian imagery for a Jewish girl from the Lower East Side, and a communist, to boot.

What are we to make of this? Has Ethel found religion – a different one – in prison? She has a constant companion who says she represents all faiths and all cultures. The very talented Adrienne C. Moore (now in “Orange Is the New Black”) plays this role, which seems to be a cross between a Greek chorus and a guardian angel. Although Ms. Moore gives her all to the role, it never is clear what she is there to do. Switching from gospel-inflected affirmations to Yiddishisms, she is one example of the strange mash-up of African-American and Jewish sensibilities on display at the Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row.

Perhaps director Will Pomerantz wants to emphasize the early civil-rights work of the Communist Party, or the reality that African-Americans made up a large percentage of prisoners then, just as they do now. Since none of that is made explicit or even strongly implied in the overly busy production, the casting decisions become another confusing choice.

The missteps of “Ethel Sings” cannot be blamed on its talented cast, who try hard to make the play work as they perform multiple characters. Set designer John McDermott and costume designer Whitney Locher create a believable Depression/wartime environment, with a vaguely industrial-looking set that evokes both prison and tenement. Tracy Michailidis (“Beauty and the Beast”) captures Ethel’s delicacy and stubbornness and has a beautiful voice as well, but we never understand what motivates her to make the decisions she does. She is not the ideologue that Julius is, and at times seems to have ordinary dreams of a nice apartment and happy children. Her identification with Joan of Arc is vexing: is her passion for Julius meant to remind us of Joan’s religious fervor? Does her execution make her a leftist saint? If we cannot grasp who Ethel is and apprehend why she does what she does, what does “Ethel Sings” bring to our deeper comprehension of her life?

Perhaps there is a musical treatment hidden in the experiences of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, but “Ethel Sings” is not it. At least, not yet.

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