Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, March 2006
During World War II the Danish Resistance managed to smuggle about 7,000 of the 8,000 Danish Jews over the sea to safety in Sweden, which remainded free of Nazi domination. Lois Lowry’s Newberyy award-winning young adult novel, Number the Stars tells the fictional story of 10-year-old Annemarie Johansen’s small role in assisting in this effort. It manages to pack a lot of not-too-scary action into a brief and briskly told story packed with fascinating historical facts and appealing characters with which modern children can easily identify.
The Lutheran Johansen family is close to their Jewish neighbors the Rosens. Ellen Rosen and Annemarie are classmates and inseparable buddies. So when it becomes apparent that Jews are no longer safe in Copenhagen, the Johansens work with Resistance leader Peter Neilsen, a young man who had been engaged to their deceased eldest daughter Lise, and Mrs. Johansen’s fisherman brother, Henrik, to get the Rosen family, and several other Jews, to Sweden. Annemarie and her little sister Kirsti accompany their mother and Ellen to Uncle Henrick’s house in the seaside village of Gilleleje, and there Annemarie’s courage is put to the test when she must deliver a vitally important packet to the boat before it sails at dawn.
The New York State Theatre Institute (NYSTI) is currently mounting Dr. Douglas W. Larche’s stage adaptation of Number the Stars for the second time in five years. Lowry is a prolific and popular children’s author, and I understand that almost all the daytime performances for school groups were sold out before the show opened. This is an excellent thing because Number the Stars is a show well worth seeing and this production directed by Ed. Lange is clean and appealing.
I am going to write this review, as I always do, from my own personal point of view. Let me make it clear that, I consider this top-notch children’s theatre and would encourage you to take any grade school aged children in your life to see it. As theatre in general goes, I have some problems.
Although Lowry’s novel is not written in the first person, the story is clearly told through the eyes of Annemarie. In other words it is written as though a 10-year-old is telling the tale, which makes the story ideally accessible to its target reading audience of 8-12 year olds. Larche’s stage adaptation is extremely faithful to the book. Since you cannot focus attention through a single character’s eyes on stage the way you can in a novel, which means it sounds as though a 10-year-old wrote it. That works moderately well for the child characters, but makes the grown-ups sound like ninnies.
The other problem facing Lange is the need to have the three children in the story portrayed believably. In the book Annemarie and her classmate Ellen Rosen are ten and Annemarie’s little sister Kirsti is five. I felt as though Larche had added two or three years to all of their ages, (mainly through the insertion of some awkward and unnecessary lines implying a puppy love relationship for Ellen), making Annemarie and Ellen about 12 or 13 and Kirsti 7 or 8. With a performance schedule encompassing nine weekday morning performances, two Sunday matinees, and three evening performances on Fridays and Saturdays, it was obviously not an option to cast girls close to the characters’ ages in the roles. Dipping in to NYSTI’s talented pool of interns, Lange has cast two high school seniors as Ellen and Kirsti and a 20-something actress as Annemarie.
Realize that Lange had a finite pool of female interns from which to cast this show, and that he needed to cast girls who could physically pass for younger, as well as those with talents suitable to meet the demands of the script. If the actress who is best able to play a five year old is six feet tall and towers over the performers cast as her parents, she will not get the part. Lange needed to create a believable family group, and he has succeeded. I am happy to say that all of the young people on the stage (other NYSTI high school and college age interns appear in minor roles) do honor to themselves and to the internship program by performing professionally and to the best of their ability.
It is actually more difficult for teenagers, eager as they are to grow up and leave childhood behind, to portray convincing children than it is for adults. In this case Jaclyn Walsh succeeds nicely as Ellen, while Gabriella Greco falls prey to every screechy stereotype of the annoying little sister in her attempts to play Kirsti. Walsh gives a very natural and understated performance, while Greco goes completely overboard.
In casting an actress from outside the NYSTI Intern fold to play Annemarie, Lange must have had a considerably larger pool to choose from, and I am surprised he chose Shannon Rafferty. Not that she isn’t talented and appealing, but her face is that of an alluring young woman, not that of naďve young girl. I would assume that the make-up was designed to make her look as young and innocent as possible, and she still looked ready for breakfast at Tiffanys. I would have chosen an actress with a different look. But Rafferty has strong local ties, and she does anchor the show solidly in this leading role.
While I felt Rafferty looked too mature to be convincing as Annemarie, I found Mary Jane Hansen and Erin O’Malley as Inge Johansen and Sophy Rosen much too young and girlish to be believable as middle-aged mothers. Since the dialogue they are given already tends towards the childlike, I would have cast women “of a certain age” to counteract that impediment. Mrs. Johansen and Mrs. Rosen are dealing with very stressful, life and death matters and I felt neither actress brought any gravitas to her role.
On the other hand John McGuire as Papa Johansen, David M. Girard as Peter Neilsen, and David Bunce as Uncle Henrik all behaved like adult men dealing maturely with important matters. McGuire was especially moving in the scenes where he spoke of the murdered Lise. Girard showed the passionate commitment of a young man ready to sacrifice his life for his country. And Bunce was believable as a simple fisherman ready to do what was right.
Eric Rose, Alex Pavone, Kerry Kazmierowicztrimm, and Joe Quandt had the thankless job of playing various Nazi soldiers and officers. They are drawn as frightening two-dimensional characters in Lowry’s novel and Larche gives them no more depth in his adaptation. All Rose, Pavone, Kazmierowicztrimm, and Quandt had to do was be scary, and the certainly succeeded in sending a chill down my spine.
It took me about ninety minutes to read Lowry’s novel, and it takes about the same amount of time to perform Larche’s adaptation, but Lange stretches it out to almost two hours with an awkwardly inserted intermission. The unneeded break coupled with a lack of energy in the climatic scene when Annemarie is accosted by the Nazis on her way to the boat, slowed the show down for me.
Lange has elected to present Number the Stars on a minimal set, designed by Richard Finkelstein, consisting primarily of simple household furniture placed before an enormous screen, on which an array of slides are projected. These vary from very abstract modern art (Danish, I presume), and photographs (both black and white and color). While the historic photos, especially those depicting Jews being arrested and ordered about by Nazi soldiers, were chilling and did a good job of setting the scene, many of the paintings and some of the “location shots” of Danish sights were merely distracting. Every time the slide changed I felt as if my eyes were yanked away from the performers and on to an image that might do no more than annoy me.
Karen Kammer has done a nice job of designing costumes that felt just worn and shabby enough to represent proud people struggling to look presentable during wartime deprivations.
I hope that all those school children sitting in those sold out seats enjoy Number the Stars and that it inspires them to read the novel, and many of Lowry’s others as well. And I hope it teaches them the difference one person can make in the lives of others and in world affairs by following their heart and doing what needs to be done when it needs doing. Annemarie is often scared, but she unhesitatingly tackles each challenge as it presents itself with the unwavering strength of her convictions.
The New York State Theatre Institute production of Number The Stars runs through March 25 at the Schacht Fine Arts Center on the campus of Russell Sage College, 37 Front Street in Troy, New York. The show runs an hour and fifty minutes with one intermission, and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-274-3200 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006