“There’s singing, there’s dancing, and all the Jews die in the end”
The West End production of Imagine This lasted for barely a month in 2008, so it usually one of the first shows named when it comes to lists of notorious flops. Which might explain, at least partly, why it has taken nearly a decade for anyone to go near the show again, that honour going to first-time director Harry Blumenau who is now mounting the musical at the Union Theatre, in a well-cast production seeking to reassess that reputation.
For me, as a first-timer to the show, it didn’t feel hard to see why it didn’t succeed. Glenn Berenbeim’s grimly stoic book is set in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 where a group of actors are trying to lift spirits by staging a play. And not just any play, it’s the story of the siege of Masada, a historical act of Jewish resistance and thereby flicking the v-sign to the Nazis. But Berenbeim attempts to gild the lily by throwing a would-be epic romance which ultimately cheapens the narrative fatally.
There’s a chilling power to the resonance that emerges between the ‘Hail Caesars’ of the play and the ‘Heil Hitlers’ of real life that keeps interrupting, but Berenbeim allows no time for the development of his characters before they are submerged into the world of the play-within-the-play, a balance that never gets corrected throughout the show. And Shuki Levy’s score doesn’t do enough to differentiate between the two worlds either, despite the many influences it could have drawn on, opting instead for a monotonous flow of generic bland balladry.
So against all this, Blumenau and his company have a real battle on their hands. And at times, they succeed in showing what a show it could be. The soaring full-cast harmonies on tracks like ‘Imagine This’ are stunning, and Justin Williams’ design captures the poor theatre aesthetic perfectly. And the likes of Nick Wyschna as director Daniel, Lauren James Ray as his daughter Rebecca and Shaun McCourt’s resistance fighter Adam deliver emotionally committed performances.
But the book’s insistence on foregrounding a romance between characters we’ve barely gotten to know, and who barely know each other, leaves a big disconnect when it comes to the emotional investment in the show. The finale finally brings a real gut-punch of the terrible weight of the history involved, and it is telling that it has nothing to do with that faux-romance. The production may tighten up as the run progresses as some of the supporting players settle better into their roles, but it is hard not to find Imagine This a mis-judged way to explore either period of Jewish history covered here.