Comedy in jackboots is, with all due respect to Mel Brooks, a tough sell. Ernst Lubitsch found this out with his brilliant 1942 film “To Be, or Not To Be,” about a ragtag theater troupe struggling to survive in Warsaw during Hitler’s rise to power. The reaction to the movie was brutal, despite a cast headed by Carole Lombard and Jack Benny.
“The People in the Picture,” the Roundabout’s new musical at Studio 54, has a similar plot. Switching in time between 1977 Manhattan, and Poland from 1935 to 1946, the show tells the story of the “Warsaw Gang,” who sing “We play the shtetl circuit, a lousy deal no matter how you work it.”
That clunker comes in the first minutes of the show, which has a book by “Beaches” writer Iris Rainer Dart, with a pastiche score by Mike Stoller (of Leiber and) and Artie Butler.
There are groaners galore in “Picture” -- I hope it’s the only time I’ll ever hear “Jerusalem” rhymed with “bamboozle ’em” -- but I’m going to assume they’re intended. The Warsaw Gang is part Yiddish theater, dedicated to bowdlerized Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet live! Iago’s not so bad!) and part slap-stick burlesque.
The darling of the company is leading lady Raisel, who we first meet as a grandmother, Bubbie, in 1970s Manhattan. Bubbie has photographs of the company. She regales her adoring granddaughter, Jenny, with tales of romance and survival while her hostile, actively uninterested daughter trundles off to work each day (as a writer on a comedy show, no less).
In Donna Murphy, the creators have a shimmering star who can play a tender, doting grandma and yet evoke Lombard, that irresistible mix of winks and minx.
But along with some syrupy writing, a mean streak runs through this show. For the first half, Jenny’s mom, Red, is played (by Nicole Parker) as a strident over-achiever, hardened to her own mother’s suggestion that she quit her job and care for her daughter herself.
In Act II, as the story of what happened to Raisel and her baby emerges, Bubbie, too, is taken down a few notches.
Leonard Foglia’s hyperactive production is lovely, with set designer Riccardo Hernandez taking the title at face value and offering up lots of gilded frames to frame the action. James F. Ingalls’s lighting evokes an Old World glow in Warsaw, steelier light in Manhattan, and Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes also place us in those cities with subtle specificity.
And the cast couldn’t be bettered. The standouts include Alexander Gemignani, Chip Zien and Lewis J. Stadlen as troupers, Parker as the mother and a young charmer, Rachel Resheff, as Jenny.
Through June 19 at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com Rating: **
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(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)