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Soviet Zion Concept Album | Review

It’s an ambitious project – about an ambitious project. Soviet Zion has been around for quite a while, having already been presented in semi-staged concert form at the now-defunct Lost Theatre in 2014.
Soviet Zion

With audio descriptions provided by narrator Toni Green, this concept album might as well have been a radio musical. Set roughly between the late 1930s and the late 1940s (the earliest date explicitly stated is 29 March 1939, and the narrative ends at a point where Israel had been established as a nation-state), the show is set in Birobidzhan, in Siberia. Birobidzhan remains the capital of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, ostensibly set up so the USSR could claim tolerance towards Jews. But, as this show highlights, even the slightest hint of dissidence against the state results in a lengthy jail term.

Two families in particular are focused on. Iser Liebermann (Sam Young), his wife Mirele (Kate Radmilovic) and their daughter Zofia (Kimberley Blake), a wireless broadcaster, are from Ukraine.

Oskar Levin (John Ellis), his son David (Joseph Claus) and his daughter Bayla (Michaela Stern) are from sunny California. The long and the short of it appears to be that Oskar hates his ex-wife so much he would rather relocate to Siberia than have anything to do with her in the United States. Each to their own and all that.

No prior knowledge of the era in which the show is set is required as sufficient context is provided. Having as much explanation as is provided may be somewhat trying for someone who does know about this period of history, but that doesn’t take anything away from how accessible this production is. The show provides an ‘outside looking in’ perspective on Soviet living, and isn’t exactly kind to the USSR, portraying it as a fretful country where everyone spies on everyone else and submits regular reports to the authorities. The Soviet Union is, mind you, where the term ‘politically incorrect’ came from. Used in its original context, your friends may agree with you about something, and deem you factually correct but politically incorrect, because what you’ve said is not the official standpoint of the government, and would therefore, if someone were to snitch on you, result in immediate and indefinite imprisonment without trial.

The style and tempo of the music suits the hostile environment. This isn’t exactly 42nd Street, and it takes a while to get drawn into the narrative. Some themes and subject matters explored are familiar to fans and followers of musical theatre, such as intergenerational conflict, sibling rivalries, the power of love, and the dilemmas characters must face at pivotal moments, expressed (of course) through song. The show verges on melodrama on occasion, and some of it, frankly, is as predictable as night follows day. There’s the steely determination that one character has when another one wants to throw in the towel. And people are falling in (and out) of love with each other.

For some, the litmus test is whether the melodies are memorable. There isn’t a tune that sticks in the mind for me. It is a demanding score to navigate, and the cast does well to belt out the long, big notes (and there are quite a few of them throughout). I’m not the biggest fan of synthesizers, and they’re overused here. The production manages a credible hopeful ending, and by the end, I was sufficiently invested in the show’s characters that it was almost a pity there wasn’t a postscript to summarise what happened to them in the years and decades after the events portrayed.

It’s not a wholly watertight musical. Some of the accents need tightening, for instance, and I’m not sure what Yenta (Toni Green) does all day other than worry and complain. It’s also slightly surprising that it’s not until some way into the second half that someone – anyone – in a religious community utters a prayer. Overall, though, it’s a bold and sincere musical work, which doesn’t sugar-coat the sheer reality of the complications and risks involved in starting a new life.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Set on the brink of war, SOVIET ZION is about an American family and a European family who each move to Siberia as pioneers, participating in the real-life endeavour to create there a Yiddish-speaking, socialist utopia. The stories of a spoilt girl from Malibu who must adjust to her new Siberian life intertwine with those of a woman who, manipulated into betraying the man she loves, must strategize her every move. How can they escape? And where can they call home?


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