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Kushner and Sendak pairing leads to wondrous 'Brundibar'

NEW HAVEN -- In Tony Kushner's world, nothing is secure. Love and death go hand in hand. Bourgeois comforts are threatened by the new world order. Friendships are uprooted by a careless word.

But if transcendence can easily turn to tragedy, or good to evil, then the reverse is also true. The devil can't be done away with, but he can be dealt with and temporarily defeated.

Perhaps it's the juxtaposition of such essences that drew Kushner and his friend, illustrator Maurice Sendak, to the two comic operas ''Brundibar" and ''Comedy on the Bridge," which are paired in adaptations receiving a pre-New York run at the Yale Repertory Theatre.

The children's tale ''Brundibar" is the main attraction here. As written by composer Hans Krása and librettist Adolf Hoffmeister, the 1942 opera is the story of two children who go to town to get milk for their ailing mother, only to be repelled by uncaring adults and a bullying organ-grinder named Brundibar. The animal kingdom and other children come to their aid, and all is well in the end.

It's the real-life postscript that haunted Kushner and Sendak, who adapted the story into a charming children's book in 2003. Back in 1942, before the first performance of ''Brundibar" in the Prague ghetto, Krása was sent to Theresienstadt, the Nazis' ''model ghetto" that duped international observers into thinking the Jews weren't being treated that badly. It was performed there by children to great applause -- by an International Red Cross representative, among others -- before they were sent off to be gassed. Krása died in Auschwitz in 1944.

What makes this ''Brundibar" so captivating is that in their adaptation, Kushner and Sendak don't give in to easy pessimism any more than candy-cane optimism. They stay true to the spirit of the story even while introducing elements that let you know Brundibar is not easily, or permanently, defeated.

Take this stanza by Brundibar to the accompaniment of Krása's pleasantly tonal, foot-tapping music. It has people chuckling -- until the punch line:

Little children, how I hate 'em

How I wish the bedbugs ate 'em!

How their parents overrate 'em!

If they're rude exterminate them.

Parents, though, should definitely not be dissuaded from bringing children. Kushner's moral shadings are subtle; they don't bludgeon.

Children will probably also delight in the set pieces reminiscent of Sendak's ''Where the Wild Things Are." Sendak's drawings, which Kris Stone has helped turn into a festive stage design, are an eyeful, and director Tony Taccone and movement director Kimi Okada keep everything moving, keyed by a dancing dog, cat, and bird -- the talented Geoff Hoyle, Angelina Réaux, and Anjali Bhimani respectively.

The performances by the other adults and youth ensemble are solid across the board, and the contributions of the Yale School of Music orchestra under conductor Greg Anthony are immense.

''Comedy on the Bridge" is more musically sophisticated, but dramatically more static. Five characters get exit visas to cross a bridge to the other side of a country split in two by civil war. The sentry won't let them in, though, and when they try to go back, their exit visas aren't good for reentry, leaving them stranded on the bridge in the middle of warfare.

The singing is excellent, though there's a little too much recitative in Bohuslav Martinu's otherwise strong score.

Still, you can see how this opera, too, fits into Kushner's worldview. The characters are stuck between two warring sides, like present-day victims of civil wars. Martinu himself was one step ahead of the Nazis in Prague and Paris when he composed the opera in the mid-1930s.

Like Krása, Martinu didn't give in to the cynicism around him. Nor do Kushner or Sendak. They give the devil his due, but keep on hoping. And fighting. And laughing. And turning the struggle into art.

Ed Siegel can be reached at

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