Underscored by music, the montage of images has a visceral impact; we don’t need language to understand it, or to think and feel in response. (Projections are by Brad Peterson, sound design by Dan Moses Schreier.) “Amid Falling Walls,” though, relies heavily on lyrics and spoken text, almost all of it in Yiddish; non-Yiddish speakers, like me, will spend the performance reading supertitles, which are in English and Russian.
The placement of those titles, far above the actors’ heads on a set by Jessica Alexandra Cancino, fundamentally thwarts this fast-paced pageant, whose arc takes it from the Vilna Ghetto, in what is now Lithuania, to a displaced persons camp in Germany. It becomes a fragmented experience: Take our eyes off the titles and we’re lost for meaning, but read only the titles and we miss the show. Either way, the fullness of the production’s emotion and artistry remains out of reach.
Curated by Avram Mlotek, who wrote the libretto, and his father, Zalmen Mlotek, who is the show’s music director and arranger as well as the company’s artistic director, “Amid Falling Walls” sounds gorgeous. Its 28 musical numbers — folk music and cabaret, elegies and anthems — are played by a nine-piece orchestra tucked away upstage. And the show has an ace in its fine eight-person ensemble: Steven Skybell, who starred as Tevye in the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene’s excellent Yiddish-language production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
One of Skybell’s songs here, Reuven Lipshitz’s “Motele From the Warsaw Ghetto,” is the rare number in the show with a tempo slow enough to allow both reading the titles and watching the performance, which in its restraint is absolutely searing: the story of a boy, not yet 13, doing his part to resist the Nazis — sneaking in and out of the ghetto — and dying for it.
“Humanity’s most true history is written only in blood,” Skybell says in English near the top of the show, and it is an arresting line. But before bloodshed comes the process of dehumanization that features in all ethnic hatred, and “Amid Falling Walls” delineates that vividly.