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White Rose

Cole Thompson, Paolo Montalban, Jo Ellen Pellman, Kennedy Kanagawa and Mike Cefalo. (Photo:Russ Rowland)


White Rose


By Fern Siegel

It s easy to protest if your life isn t in danger. When it is, standing up to tyranny takes a special brand of courage.

Such courage defined a group of real-life university students, led by Hans and Sophie Scholl, who opposed Adolph Hitler from 1942-1943 a treasonous act in Nazi Germany. As a soldier on the Eastern Front, Hans (Mike Cefalo) had seen the mass murder of Polish Jews. Horrified by Nazi brutality and the lack of resistance by fellow Germans, Hans and University of Munich students formed the White Rose, a secret protest group.

Natalie Brice (music) and Brian Belding (book/lyrics) have transformed that momentous act into White Rose, a chamber musical now playing off-Broadway at Theater Three/Theater Row. The show shines a light on historic events well-known in Germany, but little known here.

The musical tells a true story with sensitivity as well as the genesis of a political conscience. It is also a strong reminder of the courage and idealism of young people who consider righteousness and moral duty paramount. Resistance, they believed, was a patriotic act, even at the risk of their own lives. Given the authoritarian impulses in the U.S., and the craven cowardice of many politicians, White Rose s debut is perfectly timed.

However, given the subject matter, a stronger sense of Nazi menace and terror, which is missing early on, would underscore the high stakes especially given the group s tragic outcome.

In 1942, Hans Scholl founded the White Rose movement with some of his fellow medical students. Among the White Rose members were Christoph Probst (Kennedy Kanagawa), Willi Graf (Cole Thompson) and later Kurt Huber (Paolo Montalban) a university philosophy professor. Sophie (Jo Ellen Pellman) becomes a leading advocate in the fight against fascism and antisemitism.

At great danger to themselves, White Rose members posted and mailed leaflets that denounced the regime. They also used graffiti to decry Nazi crimes and its corrupt practices. Their goal was to achieve a renewal from within of the severely wounded German spirit. They succeed, in part, thanks to the protection of Frederick Fischer (Sam Gravitte), a former boyfriend of Sophie s, who parses his duties by claiming: I m police, not Gestapo.

Acquiring paper, envelopes and stamps at a time of strict rationing wasn t easy. Alex, a supportive shopkeeper (Laura Sky Herman), provides them with a critical mimeograph machine. Incredibly, they engaged supporters throughout the country, tricking the Gestapo into believing the White Rose had locations nationwide.

Most telling, the Scholls ideology evolved.

Once the Nazis came to power in 1933, Sophie, Hans and most of their siblings were involved in either Hitler Youth or National Socialist cult of youth activities. (By 1935, it included almost 60% of German boys.) However, the Scholls parents were critics of the Nazi regime. Hans arrest in 1937 turned Sophie and her siblings from supporters into active resistance fighters.

White Rose tells their compelling story with beautiful pop-style melodies that are almost operatic in nature. The moving songs narrate the action, aided by Will Nunziata s mostly smooth direction. Theater Three, a 199-seat theater, is an ideal setting to stage it. Pellman and Cefalo are particularly strong, and the cast delivers meaningful performances, though Thompson s Graf is a bit too jumpy and sophomoric. Herman s part is small, but her vocals and delivery are notable.

The production is aided by Sheela Ramesh s music direction, James Noone s sets, Sophia Choi s costumes, Alan C. Edwards lighting and Elisabeth Weidner s sound. White Rose has much to recommend it. And if you catch one of the leaflets at the show s end, inscribed with anti-war excerpts from the real White Rose, its call to action will haunt you long after you leave the theater.

White Rose

Theater Row/Theater Three,

410 W. 42 St., through March 31.

Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission