‘White Rose: The Musical’

A youth group resists Nazi tyranny in this off-Broadway musical based on real events and heroes.
‘White Rose: The Musical’
“White Rose: The Musical” features (L–R) Paolo Montalban, Cole Thompson, Jo Ellen Pellman, Mike Cefalo, and Kennedy Kanagawa. (Russ Rowland)

NEW YORK—Just because you can’t change the world, doesn’t mean you should stop trying. This phrase is uttered by just about every generation since time began and it has a particular meaning for a group of German students during the Nazi regime in “White Rose: The Musical.” With book and lyrics by Brian Belding and music by Natalie Brice, this stirring drama recalls a real-life tale of heroism and hope at a time when both were in short supply.

It’s 1942 and Sophie Scholl (Jo Ellen Pellman) has arrived in Munich to attend the university there with her brother Hans (Mike Cefalo), an Army medic, recently back from the front lines. When not busy with school, Sophie hopes to visit some of the city’s cultural institutions—at least those not yet closed by the authorities. However, her innate idealism, which has previously threatened to get her in trouble back home, faces a rude awakening when she learns of the new German order’s academic restrictions such as not to reference books that are now banned, or even mention the authors who wrote them.

Disgusted by what she sees, Sophie decides to print and distribute a series of pamphlets in protest of the current situation. She’s aided in her efforts by Hans and fellow students Willi Graf (Cole Thompson) and Christoph Probst (Kennedy Kanagawa)—this, despite their initial warnings not to make waves, along with the fact that any such form of public dissent is strictly forbidden. Sophie and the group’s ultimate hope is that those who read their leaflets will copy and pass them on and thus spread the word about their call to resistance.

Jo Ellen Pellman and Mike Cefalo star as real life sister and brother who stood up against the Nazis. (Russ Rowland)
Jo Ellen Pellman and Mike Cefalo star as real life sister and brother who stood up against the Nazis. (Russ Rowland)

Calling themselves “The White Rose,” the students are eventually helped by philosophy professor Kurt Huber (Paolo Montalban). Also providing aid, or at least looking the other way, is Lila Ramdohr (Laura Sky Herman)—someone with her own secret to keep hidden.

The musical stresses the importance of ordinary people doing what they feel is right, as well as the idea of personal redemption. Some in the group need to atone for past actions—ones taken when they were too afraid or uninformed to speak out. Hans, for example, was a troop leader in the Hitler Youth. In addition, Hans, Willi and Christoph are all currently on leave from military service, where they were horrified by what they saw at the front. Since then, all have begun training as medics so they can now try to save lives, instead of end them.

Professor Huber meanwhile, in addition to being disgusted by the “approved” curriculum he must now teach, blames himself for not helping previously those in need such as Frederick Fischer (Sam Gravitte), Sophie’s former boyfriend, who is now a member of the German police. Once just as idealistic as Sophie, Frederick was reported for writing a paper against Hitler. With no one willing to stand with him, he was taken away by the authorities and indoctrinated into their ranks until his spirit was destroyed.

The greatest strength of the musical is in its songs including the haunting ballad “Run Away,” a number sung by Sophie and Frederick where he wishes the two could just go somewhere safe and forget everything that has happened. The company sings the rousing “Munich,” as Sophie arrives there for the first time, full of hopes about the future.

The most striking moment of all occurs during “The Sheep Chose a Wolf,” where Hans recalls his time with the Hitler Youth. That number serves as a stark reminder of how impressionable the young can be and what can happen when they’re forbidden to think for themselves.

This same urgency is also seen in “We Will Not Be Silent,” which illustrates a determination to fight on and the importance of making a difference. This feeling crystallizes for Sophie and Hans when they learn how their pamphlets have indeed reached a wider audience and had a bigger effect than they thought possible.

While the score is quite strong, the show’s book is somewhat weak. Many of the characters, most of whom are based on actual people, are not fully developed. The narrative also feels more like a series of snapshots rather than a complete story.

In addition, Sophie’s initial idealism does not ring true; at least in the circumstances presented. When she still lived at home, her father had several run-ins with the Nazis. By 1942, Sophie should have had some idea of what was happening in Munich, even before she arrived.

It would have also been nice if the show’s program notes included a bit of background information on the events depicted.

Despite these missteps, “White Rose: The Musical” still manages to tell a powerful story of an intrepid band of rebels who tried their hardest to make a difference and, as a result, left their mark on history.

‘White Rose: The Musical’ Theatre Row (Theatre Three) 410 W. 42nd St. Tickets: WhiteRoseTheMusical.com Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes  (no intermission) Closes: March 31
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Judd Hollander is a reviewer for stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.
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