J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

NYMF: The ToyMaker

Though occupied by the National Socialists, the Czechs still put up a spirited resistance, for which they paid dearly. In retribution for the death of regional SS strongman Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazis massacred the inhabitants of Lidice, a Christian village in Moravia. Out of those dark days of death, one man would leave behind a legacy of life in Brian Putnam’s The ToyMaker, now running as part of the 2009 New York Musical Theatre Festival at the Theatre at St. Clement’s.

Thanks to the internet, Sarah Meeks has spent thousands of dollars for two wooden toys handcrafted by a mysterious Czech artisan. It is difficult for her to explain her compulsion, since a series of miscarriages have rendered her childless. Something about the work of the obscure Petr Klimes speaks to her on a deeper fundamental level. Leaving behind her increasingly distant husband Jason, Meeks travels to the Czech Republic, hoping to find Klimes’s rumored final extant creation.

In ToyMaker’s split narrative, we also see Klimes and his wife Anna struggling to endure the Nazi occupation of Lidice in the fateful days leading up to the town’s destruction. Like the Meeks, the Klimeses have had similar difficulties carrying children to term, but the caring Czechs essentially serve as surrogate parents for Capek, the village orphan.

Thanks to the help of Doby, a slick street kid, Meeks is able to follow a trail of clues from Lidice to Germany and back to Lidice, as she seeks both the whereabouts of Petr’s last toy, as well as an understanding of its full significance. Concurrently, we watch as the Klimeses are caught up in the horrific events of 1942.

Clearly, ToyMaker is not a light and frothy musical comedy. Yet, the numbers are tastefully integrated into the show, and Putnam’s music and lyrics are quite strong, particularly Petr and Capek’s “Thy Might,” a stirring ode to the creative impulse. Also notable is the big sound musical director-conductor-pianist Kenneth W. Gartman gets out of the relatively small ensemble of two reeds, two keyboards, and three strings, effectively serving both the vocalists and the score.

The featured cast of ToyMaker is uniformly appealing and their voices are mostly strong and expressive. As Petr and Anna Klimes, Rob Richardson and Jessica Burrows are especially impressive. Ultimately, the fine ensemble work leads to a real emotional payoff that should forcefully hit anyone who does not have a heart completely made of stone. The only trouble with ToyMaker is that the parallels drawn between Sarah Meeks and the Klimeses—their shared pain from losing babies and the motherless young boys they take under their wings—inadvertently suggest a correspondence between lives that simply cannot be compared.

ToyMaker is a very strong work of musical theater with some real emotional heft. Well staged and performed, it also dramatizes the historic tragedies of the Czech occupation, made possible by ill-conceived policies of appeasement. It runs at St. Clement’s through October 18th.

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