“Moses Man,” currently running at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, is based on the true story of writer Deborah Haber’s parents Kalman and Lily Haber whose nine-year journey from Nazi-occupied Austria throughout Europe, Cyprus, Palestine, and Africa finally – against many odds – leads to freedom and a new home in the United States. In “Moses Man” that survivor Opa (Kevin McGuire) shares the story of survival with his grandson Moshe (Evan Daves) as Moshe is opening his exhibition about his grandfather’s journey. Apparently Moshe curates this installation without consulting or seeking the facts from his grandfather. Although this seems odd, it is the convention Ms. Haber uses to relate her story: past and present coexist on the stage and Moshe can see the events of his grandfather’s journey play out before him. The only thing he cannot do is speak to those from the past.
Under Michael Bush’s inconsistent direction (some scenes are well staged, some seem to be without any direction), the talented cast does its best to enliven Ms. Haber’s characters and tell the important story of a journey of survival. This attempt has mixed results. Many of the scenes are driven by authentic emotion (pathos) and historical fact (logos). Missing is the ability of the cast and the story to connect to the lives of those in the audience (ethos). The story is simply “out there” to be viewed and understood. Many of the scenes become didactic as though the audience had no knowledge of the horrors of the Holocaust or the need to assure that “this never happens again.”
Casey Filiaci’s music is often endearing and reflects a variety of musical styles and genres depending heavily upon Sondheim-like phrasing. Some songs like “Take a Few … in Eight Days” in Act I soar and give the cast the opportunity to showcase its collective talent. Others, however, like the interminable “And Mama Needs Cherries” need serious editing. Numbers like the extraneous Act II opener “Opa” should probably be cut entirely. The entire production is overlong.
One wants to identify with Avi and his bride Lia (Tess DeFlyer) and one wants profoundly to identify with Freddy (Zachary Clause) who is outed in Belgium and is murdered in a concentration camp. For some reason, the performances lie flat and the director needs to address this issue in earnest and with alacrity and celerity.
“Moses Man” is about “journeys of choices” and had the creators attempted to counterpoint their story with the stories of so many others on the planet (and in the audience) attempting to navigate those journeys, this new musical would resound with success. It is “time to do something” about oppression throughout the world, “time to stand up” to those oppressors. At times, the actors do not seem to be in touch with their characters and the motivations and conflicts of their characters. It is therefore difficult for them to “tell the story” effectively. And sometimes they seem to move about aimlessly.
The "mission statement” of the producers of “Moses Man” includes the following. “Moses Man,” based on the historically significant implications of the displacement of those facing persecution during the Holocaust, also reflects the contemporary dilemmas faced by each of us.” Unfortunately, this connection fails to happen in this new musical. Also problematic is the missed opportunity to make strong connections between the biblical Moses leading his people to freedom in the Promised Land and Avi’s mission to lead his small tribe to freedom in America. This is unfortunate and significantly lessens the impact of this musical which has at its core an extremely important matrix of themes including the journal of survival. Instead of relying more on the biblical Moses story, the creators decide to mimic scenes from “Les Miserables,” banners and ramparts included.
At least this New Moses (Avi) had the opportunity to see his promised land. The First Moses was not afforded the opportunity to see his Promised Land. The cast and creative team have obviously worked hard to bring the musical to its current level and the musical is deserving of a close look by audiences.
For complete information on "Moses Man,” including the creative team, the cast, the performance schedule, and how to purchase tickets, please visit http://www.nymf.org/festival/2015-events/moses-man. To learn more about the musical itself, please visit http://mosesmanthemusical.com/about/overview. The running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission.