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The history of Birobidzhan is steeped in hopes and struggles; founded in the 1930s as the centre of the Soviet Union’s Jewish Autonomous region, the town promised to be a Zion for thousands – the first modern Jewish territory. Jewish people, not just from the Soviet Union but from all areas of the world, packed up their lives and headed to Siberia for fresh beginnings in a safe new land. What resulted was a harsh and unforgiving new home, reflecting the anti-Semitism of those who cultivated it. Whilst the town’s first language is still Yiddish, its Jewish population numbers less than 1% following a mass emigration to Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a clear sign of the failure of the project.
Soviet Zion follows two families, one European and one American, who immigrate to Birobidzhan during this pioneering time. Full of hope for a new start, they soon find that their acceptance in this new land is only paper-thin and they are quickly drawn into a game of betrayal against their own. The book feels akin with Our Town by Thornton Wilder, an attempt to display a dramatic but authentic representation of a community and the daily movements of its people going about their lives as they adjust to this new socialist ‘utopia’. Its characters are unique, yet we can relate to a lot of the emotional pulls that they experience throughout the show.
Written by Giles Howe, Soviet Zion is a mammoth three-hour musical drama recorded as a concept album, with a delivery which very much resembles a BBC Radio 4 play. Its operatic style escalates the stakes to immense proportions in an unrelenting score, and whilst the production is not a sung-through musical, it does have a very similar effect. Most scenes are underscored with seemingly unending phrases allowing the characters to move in and out of song without hesitation, sometimes only just for one line.
At times it can be hard to tell what is going on, the show doesn’t seem to have been written as an audio production, and though there is some narration, the lack of initial context makes some very complex moments hard to grasp. The cast’s well-rehearsed performances and unambiguous characterisation do, however, help to guide us through a maze of relationships and interactions – although their accents sometimes seem a bit contrived. The cast’s vocal delivery of the songs is superb, bringing every line to life with real emotion and need, highlighting (much like in works by Chekhov) an internalised pull toward a better life and the complex moral struggles which are so intrinsically tied to achieving it.
Soviet Zion’s complex themes and overly worked score are both its success and its downfall. It certainly delivers a highly dramatic telling of a very worthy story, however, its format can be hard to chew. The constantly heightened nature of the music prevents the peace needed to process the story and themes. This production would certainly work better as a staged performance, or reformatted into a serial, allowing for a more measured digestion of each section. In the meantime, however, this accomplished performance is still worth a listen, though a little research and a few coffee breaks must be recommended.
Soviet Zion is available to buy from iTunes, Apple Music and Amazon. For more information, visit Soviet Zion’s website.