Wednesday, June 1st, 2016...1:03 pm

Number the Stars tells heroic tale

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Stages Theatre Company presentation is a fun adaptation of an important story

By DORIS RUBENSTEIN

Lois Lowry’s 1989 Newbery Award-winning book has been adapted for the stage by Dr. Douglas W. Larche with Susan Elliott Larche. While originally written for children, its Holocaust setting and its timeless theme of the value of true friendship speak to persons of all ages.

Number the Stars (1989) is a work of historical fiction by American author Lois Lowry, about the escape of a Jewish family from Copenhagen during World War II.

Number the Stars centers on ten-year-old Annemarie Johansen, who lives with her family in Copenhagen in 1943. She becomes a part of the events related to the rescue of the Danish Jews, when thousands of Jews were helped to reach neutral ground in Sweden in order to keep them from being deported to concentration camps. She and her family risk their lives to help Annemarie’s best friend, Ellen Rosen, by pretending that Ellen is Annemarie’s late older sister Lise, who had died earlier in the war. Unbeknownst to her younger sisters, Lise had been killed as a result of her work with the Danish Resistance. The story’s title is taken from a reference to Psalm 147, in which the writer relates that God has numbered all the stars in the universe. It ties into the Set Star of David, worn by Ellen on her necklace, which is symbolic to the story.

From left to right, Sally-Anne Hunt (as Kirstie Johansen), rebekah Sheih (as Ellen Rosen) and Grace Lynch (as Annemarie Johansen), set in Copenhagen in 1943. (Photo: Isabel Lieb/Courtesy of Stages Theatre Company).

From left to right, Sally-Anne Hunt (as Kirstie Johansen), rebekah Sheih (as Ellen Rosen) and Grace Lynch (as Annemarie Johansen), set in Copenhagen in 1943. (Photo: Isabel Lieb/Courtesy of Stages Theatre Company).

Stages Theatre Company, the highly-regarded children’s theater company based at the Hopkins Center for the Arts, has taken on this important tale. With hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding into Europe and Scandinavia from the Middle East right now, it is stories like this that remind us of the threats to life these immigrants face in their own countries and why they are willing to brave the perils of a sea-crossing to reach safety.

My young co-reviewer, future Shir Tikva bat mitzvah Ellen Orzoff, seemed particularly attuned to the lessons Counting the Stars offers. “This is a lesson that has to be learned,” she said after the show, “but the play made it fun to learn it!”

According to Ms Orzoff (who has read the book), the play represented the story of the book very well and she didn’t miss the parts that had been edited out. We were both very impressed with the talent of the young – and older – actors.

Director Jeannine Coulombe, who, among her many credits as playwright and director-about-town is Director of the Stages Theatre Conservatory program, explained: “We have a wealth of youth actors in the Twin Cities.” So much so, in fact, that 25 girls had second auditions for one of two main roles.

The two girls selected are excellent choices. Working together on this kind of project clearly was a bonding experience for them and their affection was abundantly apparent when they morphed into their onstage roles. Grace Lynch as Annemarie is making her Stages Theatre Company debut, but has been a student in the Acting Conservatory program for four years. Grace is 13 years old and in the eighth grade. Rebekah Sheih plays Ellen Rosen. This is her first appearance at Stages, but she has appeared in productions with Minnesota Opera, Children’s Theatre Company, and Front Porch Musical Theatre. Rebekah is 15 years old and in the ninth grade.

Ms Orzoff and I both agreed that Sally-Anne Hunt as little sister Kirstie Johansen is a show-stealer! An 11-year-old in the sixth grade, she already has appeared in productions with Guthrie Theater, Seasons Dinner Theater, and Lakeshore Players Theatre. Perhaps it was bashert that she got this role, since she claims that Number the Stars is one of her favorite books.

Theodore Emo, a graduate of Minnetonka High School, was hard to recognize in his dual roles of the resistance fighter Peter Neilsen and “the Giraffe,” a Nazi soldier. Not only was his versatility remarkable in such vastly different roles, but his physical appearance seemed to change dramatically as well. For that, we must give much credit to makeup designer and artist Samantha Fromm Haddow. She shares credit for costuming with Stacey Palmer. They did an excellent job with costumes, wigs and props (both seen and imaginary) to evoke the time and place of the action.

Also notable were Anna Hickey as mother Inge Johansen, and Bruce Rowan in his role as Uncle Henrik Knudsen, adding some welcome lighthearted – if not comic – relief at a point of high tension in the story. Ivey Award winner Aaron Gabriel was sound designer and composer of much of the scene-transition music for the show. While I thought it added to the story’s tension, Ms Orzoff found it a bit scary. Maybe we’re both right.

This play is not for little kids. But it is for adults of all ages and worth seeing. Read the book afterward.

(American Jewish World – 5.6.16)

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