The story of 15,000 Jewish children sent to the Nazi concentration camp Terezin is gripping. Several theatrical versions have added moving characterizations of the tragic situation. North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre’s “I Never Saw Another Butterfly: The Musical” ultimately leaves the audience affected, despite major flaws in script and production.
The 1964 book “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” documented the children’s hopes and fears through the poems and drawings they left behind. In 1971, Celeste Raspanti turned the book into a play that focused on young Raja and her family. Through Raja’s eyes, the horrors of living in the camp, as well as the comfort provided by a teacher there, are vividly portrayed.
Composer E.A. Alexander and lyricist Joseph Robinette’s 2007 musical version attempts to enhance the emotion and spirit in Raspanti’s drama. Instead, it mostly replaces revelatory dialogue with generic, less-than-memorable songs that soften the horrifying circumstances. For instance, when Honza, the boy Raja falls for, brings her some stolen food, the tender moment is trivialized with the lyrics, “You brought me cheese, I am so pleased.”
The company has mounted unusual musicals successfully this season (“Carrie” and “The Wild Party”), but “Butterfly” has minimal production values and awkward staging. The program states that the original director, Sheila Outhwaite, was overcommitted and had a colleague, Tanner Lagasca, take on her duties during rehearsals, which possibly accounts for the production’s unfinished quality. Too often characters face upstage for major lines and songs. Poor German accents deflate Nazi officers’ menace, and widely varying enunciation and projection rob poignant moments of their impact.
Two leads keep interest and sympathy flowing. Twelve-year-old Natalie Olinger gives Raja mature depth and understanding, and her narration and interaction with others is a testament to the suffering of those imprisoned. Lorelei Mellon makes the teacher, Irena, a beacon of hope for the children, although she is fully aware of their probable fates.
Others in the cast have affecting moments, but most lack confidence and precision. The youngest players can be given critical leeway, but all could have been stronger with more helpful direction.
Still, the sniffles heard during curtain calls indicate the subject matter’s power to touch the heart.