CAMBRIDGE — In 1944, at the Terezín concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic, the children’s opera “Brundibár” was staged as part of a successful program to convince a Red Cross representative that the camp was a comfortable, happy Jewish enclave. Most of the performers in “Brundibár,” and the composer, Hans Krása, were subsequently sent to Auschwitz and murdered there. The opera, however, survived, and it now has an English-language libretto by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Kushner. Accompanied by Kushner’s play “But the Giraffe!,” which serves as a prequel to the opera, it makes for a rewarding if sobering 90-minute evening in the Underground Railway Theater production that’s up at Central Square Theater.
Krása and librettist Adolf Hoffmeister wrote “Brundibár” in 1938, but the opera didn’t premiere until 1942, when it was staged in a Jewish orphanage in Prague. When Krása and most of the original cast were transported to Terezín, they reconstructed the work there, and it was performed 55 times.
The story has Aninku and her brother Pepícek going to the marketplace to fetch milk for their ailing mother. They have no money; when the milkman tells them, “There’s no milk if there’s no penny/ Even kitties can’t have any,” they propose to sing for her supper, but the evil organ grinder Brundibár (Czech slang for “bumblebee”) is chasing all the other street musicians away. A sparrow, a dog, a cat, and the town children help them chase Brundibár off, but not before he warns that he’ll be back.
In “But the Giraffe!,” young Eva’s family is moving (to “some place nice,” her mother explains), and she wants to bring Uncle All-Neck, her beloved stuffed giraffe, with her, but if she does, there won’t be room in the suitcase for Uncle Rudy’s opera score, so she has a difficult choice.
At Central Square Theater, Eva’s bedroom, where “But the Giraffe!” takes place, is done up in cheerful tones of dark orange and old rose, with roses on her bedspread and a dollhouse big enough to accommodate a miniature schnauzer. It’s no wonder she doesn’t want to leave. Nora Iammarino’s pigtailed Eva is a little rebellious and in a world of her own, hardly surprising when her parents are keeping her in the dark. Christie Lee Gibson is a distracted, emotional mother; both she and Iammarino could be just a little slower and clearer. Eva gets tough love, but not the truth, from her father (Phil Berman), her grandfather (Jeremiah Kissel), and her expert-on-all-things-giraffe grandmother (Debra Wise), but it’s Patrick Varner’s young, almost cute Uncle Rudy, in possession of the score that “Mr. Krása has worked on for two years,” who gives Uncle All-Neck a run for his money.
“Brundibár” starts off in what looks like that Prague orphanage, with bunk beds and endless kids, but quickly shifts to the colorful marketplace, where Alec Shiman’s street-smart Pepícek and Rebecca Klein’s sweet, protective Aninku run into a magenta-coated Brundibár (John F. King), who tells us, “When I was a tender puppy/ Every bully beat me uppy.” Without the Hitler mustache Maurice Sendak gave Brundibár in the book version he and Kushner collaborated on, King is a bit of a cartoon, and Kissel’s good-natured policeman augurs a happy ending. Brundibár is indeed no match for the dog (Berman), the cat (Gibson), the sparrow (a swooping and soaring Wise), or the children (a youth ensemble especially enchanting in their “blackbird” lullaby). Despite the reappearance of Eva’s parents and grandparents with big yellow stars on their breasts, this is mostly a children’s opera for children. Then again, the triumph of good over evil never gets old.