Broadway review

‘Amid Falling Walls’ review: songs of the Holocaust echo through time

The Daily Beast

November 20, 2023

“Amid Falling Walls” features Yiddish songs by those who faced Nazi persecution, while “The Gardens of Anuncia” is a musical about the early life of choreographer Graciela Daniele.

Amid Falling Walls (Tsvishn Falndike Vent)

This show of “songs of survival” (National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, to Dec. 10) is a collection of Yiddish songs that are emotional and illuminating testimonials by those who experienced Nazi persecution in the 1930s and ’40s. As one of the characters tells us, “All throughout the war, Jews sang, played music and created songs in ghettos, concentration and labor camps, in the forests, in fighting, and in clandestine cabarets and theatres.”

The show—the songs all sung in Yiddish, with a subtitled English translation—also includes first-hand testimony of Holocaust survivors through their own poetry and music. The music was curated and arranged by Zalmen Mlotek, the libretto curated and written by Avram Mlotek (his fascinating WSJ essay shows just how personal this work is), and the cast of eight directed by Matthew “Motl” Didner.

The title, the theater says, comes from the Partisan Hymn written by 22-year-old partisan Hirsh Glik, which came to be the rallying anthem of Jewish resistance fighters. The songs in the show are among 400 collected by Shmerke Kacgerginski, a partisan and poet from Vilnius, who after surviving the war in 1945 traveled across Eastern Europe interviewing Holocaust survivors.

The 80-minute revue encapsulates hope, resistance, bigotry, desperation, love, grief, tragedy, joy, and pride. Steven Skybell’s Mordkhe relates: “Humanity’s most true history is written only in blood. How Jews died the entire world already knows. But how Jews resisted against and fought the murderers, we know far, far less…”

The range of experiences is evident in the lyrics we hear: “When will all this wandering stop? “When will the end finally come? When will there be an end to this war? Because we can’t go on this way.” “They chase us, they harass us, they torment us, They chase us, they harass us, they torment us, they torment us.” Such words ring through history to the present day, and the experience of all those facing injustice, persecution, grievous injury, and cruelty in present-day wars.

We hear of the children in the Warsaw Ghetto who would “sneak over to the Aryan side by digging holes under the walls. They would like little mice crawl to an Aryan apartment, with frozen eyes full of despair and hunger and look out through the door’s opening. Occasionally, they would get a crust of bread or a few potatoes. And then under the threat of death, they would crawl with their treasure through the holes and crevices back into the ghetto.”

Other songs foreground humor and irreverence, of carrying on as best and happily as one can, and others celebrate life, survival, and fighting back. “We live forever, we are here! We want to sing and jump freely.” “Chase us from our homes. Cut off our beards. Jews, be happy! Let them go to hell!” As the names of those who wrote the songs, and other significant figures, are projected on to the walls—including Kacgerginski himself, 1908-1954, Hirsh Glik, Poet, 1922-1944, Kasriel Broyde, Songwriter, 1907-1945, Misha Veksler, Conductor, 1907-1943, Hey Leyvick, Writer, 1888-1962—a final lyric rings out: “We live forever, we are here!” Again, the words echo through time—an assertion of presence, and a reminder of the importance of a world free of bigotry, bullies, division, and prejudice.


The Gardens of Anuncia

The Gardens of Anuncia (Lincoln Center Theater, to Dec. 31), a quiet and sensitively rendered musical by Michael John LaChiusa, is based on the early life story of his longtime friend and collaborator, the director-choreographer Graciela Daniele, who also directed and co-choreographed (with Alex Sanchez) this show.

We see the character of Anuncia as both a rebellious, inquiring girl growing up in 1940s Argentina (played by Kalyn West) and then a sage, arch older woman (Priscilla Lopez) who is both in cross-generational communication with her younger self, and also chatting to us, considering the pleasure she has long gleaned from dance and theater, and latterly gardening.

She is constant communication with the natural world around her. One of the more memorable intruders into this space is a deer played by Tally Sessions, who sings one of the musical’s more memorable songs, “Dance While You Can.” (Later, he comes back as a meaner, more cynical deer.)

The heart of the story is women-focused, and the matriarchal home Anuncia grew up in, as the Peronist regime took authoritative, menacing shape. Eden Espinosa plays Anuncia’s mother, Mary Testa plays her “Granmama,” and Andréa Burns, “Tía.” The first is hiding a traumatic secret, which her daughter only comes to understand much later.

Testa’s character is a booming, slightly terrifying presence who eventually tells the story of her relationship with her husband (Enrique Acevedo), and Burns a beguiling mixture of sensible, straight-talking, and mischievous—the best kind of aunt. Whatever their differences and conflicts, the women are unified by love, and a determination for Anuncia to realize her ambitions.

The cast’s singing is terrific, while the staging—showing rows of suspended plants—is starkly wan, but thankfully broken up at moments such as when the stage suddenly becomes a sultry nightclub. The story too feels unfocused and incomplete (there are so many references to Anuncia’s amazing, colorful adult career in dance and theater, yet we see nothing of it). Yet the engaging performances mean the distant past of these women’s lives is compellingly reanimated. Perhaps more of Anuncia/Daniele’s life—Fosse and all—will unfold in a future show.