Reviews

White Rose: The Musical **

By: Samuel L. Leiter

January 26, 2024: The terror of life during the Third Reich—which would, of course, include the Holocaust—continues to generate a goldmine for dramatic treatment, so much in fact that it takes a lot to be surprised by any new film or play about the era. There definitely are no surprises in the latest iteration of such a background in White Rose: The Musical, an insubstantial new Off-Broadway show about a substantial subject, at Theatre Row, with music by Natalie Brice and book and lyrics by Brian Belding. The only surprise is that it’s being done at all.

By: Samuel L. Leiter

January 26, 2024: The terror of life during the Third Reich—which would, of course, include the Holocaust—continues to generate a goldmine for dramatic treatment, so much in fact that it takes a lot to be surprised by any new film or play about the era. There definitely are no surprises in the latest iteration of such a background in White Rose: The Musical, an insubstantial new Off-Broadway show about a substantial subject, at Theatre Row, with music by Natalie Brice and book and lyrics by Brian Belding. The only surprise is that it’s being done at all.

If the title doesn’t strike a bell, a quick Google search—on multiple sites, like this one—will remind you of its true story about a group of brave, anti-Nazi, German protestors, led by a 21-year-old woman named Sophie Schöll and her older brother, medical student Hans. In 1942, they secretly banded together with a few other young resisters and a University of Munich professor to mimeograph and distribute leaflets decrying Hitler and the Nazis. Their messages, spread by graffiti as well, went remarkably far and wide before the group was detected, tried, and, in 1943, executed.

Cole Thompson, Jo Ellen Pellman, Cal Mitchell, Kennedy Kanagawa, Paolo Montalban, Aaron Ramey and Mike Cefalo.

The White Rose story is too dramatic not to have been used before, and indeed it has, in at least two movies, The White Rose(1982) and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film-nominee Sophie Schöll—The Final Days(2005). Which is not to say it shouldn’t/couldn’t be used again, but hopefully not with a title tagged with that tired, commercially groveling phrase, “The Musical.” 

White Rose: The Musical is a serious misfire, its tensionless book, mediocre performances (several decent voices aside), uninspired direction (by Will Nunziata), middling “movement direction” (by Jordan Ryder), and generic score often teetering precariously on the borderline of amateurishness. Despite several actors whose resumes would seem to hold some promise, none have the kind of gravitas or period feeling required; the result is more like an MFA production than a professional one on 42nd Street. If Public Obscenities at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center can find outstandingly convincing actors capable of playing Indian characters in both Bangla and English, why can’t an Off-Broadway Equity show discover lesser-known actors similarly well-suited to playing Central Europeans? As the old saw goes, “directing is 90% casting.” 

Jo Ellen Pellman and Laura Sky Herman.

Why the creators of White Rose: The Musical have chosen to embody its powerful tale in a standard-issue, cliché-ridden, pop musical format is a question I’m not wise enough to comment on. Listening to these songs—many disturbingly upbeat, too many others belting their way to power ballad inanity, in a world of SS officers and “Heil, Hitlers”—occasionally made me consider how close they were to crossing the line toward the broad parody of Mel Brooks’s “Springtime for Hitler.”

The stripped-down story, with a cast of 10, several doubling, concentrates on the pretty Sophie (Jo Ellen Pellman, Netflix’s The Prom) and her, at first, reluctant brother (Mike Cefalo). Sophie is provided with a romantic interest in the person of old friend Frederick Fischer (Sam Gravitte, Wicked), a handsome, swastika-wearing, police officer (seemingly the only one in Munich, given how often he keeps popping up) with divided loyalties (swastika on, swastika off, swastika back on), who struggles to keep Sophie and her cohort safe when trouble arises. At a few points one senses the possibility of exploiting the theme of authoritarianism in a Hitler-Trump parallelism, but the writers do barely anything with it.

Sam Gravitte, Jo Ellen Pellman, Mike Cefalo, Kennedy Kanagawa, Cole Thompson and Paolo Montalban.

The multicultural company—including an African American actor (Cal Mitchell, The Lieutenant) playing a Gestapo officer and another (Cole Thompson, Into the Woods) as a White Rose member—displays the limits of racially woke casting. However, what comes off here as historical fatuity would be immaterial, if not sagacious, were the show to acquire a more theatrically innovative approach, perhaps in a semi-documentary, Brechtian fashion, with video projections and direct address, like that currently on view in Our Class at BAM. 

But, since there’s no guarantee that a rose by another name would smell any sweeter, you’d need the kind of brilliance nowhere on display in White Rose: The Musical to replace its hackneyed conception, writing, music, staging, and performances. 

White Rose: The Musical
Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd Street, NYC
Through March 31, 2024
Photography: Russ Rowland

Jo Ellen Pellman and Mike Cefalo.