Music by Giles Howe and Katy Lipson, book by Giles Howe and Roberto Trippini
This is a world première presentation in the form of a semi-staged concert performance (already seen earlier in the week at the Camden Town Jewish Museum). It is based on a piece of Jewish history that very few people seem to know about. I certainly had no previous knowledge of it.
After the Russian Revolution of October 1917, the Bolshevik government declared freedom of religion and free development of ethnic minorities. They set up 45 nationally specific territories and officially recognized 69 different national groups. These included a territory for Jews: a Jewish Oblast which was created in 1928 in the remote east of the Union around the Siberian town of Birobidzhan.
Tens of thousands of Russian Jews settled there and others came from Europe and the Americas, even from Palestine, though they made up only a third of the Oblast’s total population. Yiddish, not Hebrew, became the official language and it was intended that Soviet values would supplant Judaism.
Soviet Zion begins in the late 1930s with the arrival of two particular families: the Libermans from the Ukraine and the Levin’s from California. It is not a history of the Oblast (which still exists) but the stories of these people through the years that follow, giving a glimpse of what life there may have been like.
It is a rather stereotypical, western view of what Soviet society was like—there are no surprises—but its picture of forced political conformity, spying on friends, imprisonment and manufactured propaganda do not detract from what, at first, is a confident idealism.
Life was not easy in a remote territory where the climate was harsh and the land of inferior quality, especially for people who largely came from urban backgrounds transplanted to a farming society. An early scene shows newcomers being taught how to milk a cow on a mechanical model and there are reminders of food shortages and a tough environment.
The two families contrast the backwater Libermans: Mother Mirele (Kate Milner-Evans in great voice and strong dramatically) has never even seen a movie, and the worldly Levins, daughter Bayla lipsticked, loud and lively. She may be horridly self-centred, but Michaela Stern’s feistiness makes a joke of it.
Handsome brother David Levin (James Charlton) is soon attracted to Zofia, the Libermans’ capable daughter, who is soon an eager activist. Her gentle father and devoted husband Iser Liberman may have little Hebrew but he keeps Passover and his religion becomes increasingly important to him. Alex McMarran renders his sung prayers with great feeling.
Oskar Levin on the other hand, reared in New York and having run businesses in California, is much more secular. The warmth that David Phipps-Davis gives him hides the pain of having been deserted by his wife—he says, she “had never been on stage and has no talent”—who determinedly took off for Hollywood.
Love blossoms between David and Zofia—there is even a brief wedding scene complete with khupa canopy—while state employee Joshua (Daniel Donskoy), sidekick to Bruno Loxton’s slightly sinister “Official”, falls for Bayla, though that love founders when she finds out he is an informer. There is even a budding attraction between Mirele and Oskar while Iser is in prison that is beautifully and gently stated.
Indeed, quietly sung, lightly scored lament-like passages, often no more than a few lines in length, provide some of the show’s best moments.
News bulletins and official announcements show passing time and report political changes—from Russian opposition to Fascism to the volte face of the pact with Hitler, that suddenly turns into the Patriotic War and young men sent off to fight—is a ploy that is overused. Much more effective is a song in which David sings a love letter from the Front as Zofia and other young women are trained to kill.
Toni Green plays matchmaker Yenta (whose services seem unneeded) and acts as narrator, describing some more visually spectacular moments. Whether this is part of the dramatic structure or a concert measure replacement for more fully developed passages is unclear, but, with all other parts played by Mike Baxter, Laura Coutts and Holly Anna Lloyd, this is a strong company which brings vocal and dramatic energy to form a chorus that seems to fill the stage in Bronagh Lagan’s clever semi-staging under Joseph Finlay’s musical direction.
There are cadences in this score that make it instantly acceptable, almost familiar, though with few extended ballads or easily extracted numbers and no pop anthems, more art-music than Tin Pan Alley. It places big demands upon its singers and this cast meets them.
The little-known history provides the background but the story is in the people and their situation, the music expressing their emotions. The finale, which offers the same idealistic hopes with which Soviet Zion begins but now linked to emigration to Israel, is sufficiently upbeat to provide a feel-good ending but not without an ironic undercurrent considering what happened to that dream if they were expecting a Jewish socialist utopia like the one that took them to Birobidzhan in the first place.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton