By Sarah Downs

The musical White Rose purports to tell story of an idealistic young woman who with her brother and friends braved danger by daring to speak out against Fascism, creating a pamphlet of anonymous origin which they named The White Rose.  It could speak out where individuals standing on street corners, or even in the privacy of their own homes could not.  I am sorry to say, despite this laudable goal, White Rose fails, buckling under the burden of its confidence that they are Saying Something Important.

A brief, self-congratulatory prologue between the two protagonists dooms us from the gitgo.  As Hans Scholl (Mike Cefalo) and his sister Sophie (Jo Ellen Pellman)  marvel at how amazing they are, and how incredible their achievement, we realize we are going to watch a group of actors play the ending for the next 90 minutes.

Pellman in the principal rose of Sophie, does her best with a role that is one-dimensional.  Talk about incredible.  We are asked to believe that a German girl arrives in Munich in 1941 looking for adventure as if Germany were not years into a devastating  war — a girl who knows about Kristallnacht, the camps and the infiltration of Gestapo in the community — whose own father has been arrested several times — and the first thing she does is antagonize an SS officer.  Only an idiot would do that.  Or someone with a death wish.

Pellman is given no levels to play other than reckless self-righteousness and starry-eyed nobility of spirit.  She believes that she and the White Rose crew are better than other people, especially the unworthy few who fly under the radar because they want to do silly things like stay alive or take care of their families.  This superiority complex is particularly ironic in a play about a deranged Fascist whose politics were rooted in a nonsense theory about a ‘master race’ that was better than other people.  Oops.

By contrast when Laura Sky Herman as Lila Ramdohr steps onstage we are suddenly in a different musical, one where characterization and theatricality prevail.   The effect on the audience was instantaneous.  Herman has a great voice, particularly in her legit range. Admittedly her character has the show’s best solo, but it is her delivery that sells it.  Herman moves with purpose, and reaches out to the audience.  Even in her brief appearance as Alex Schmidt, Herman raises the bar.  Cefalo also breaks free from the prevailing solipsistic angst briefly, in an affecting solo in which Hans relives a terrifying memory.  It works because he opens a window into his mind, rather than telling us about it.  Cefalo conveys Hans’s trauma with touching authenticity.

It is Brian Belding’s dependence on telling rather than showing, and Natalie Brice’s endless, one-note musical numbers, that drag White Rose down.  The songs are so overwhelmingly Significant and so overwhelmingly similar, the show begins to feel like one long, tedious anthem.  The constant interruption of the somewhat hackneyed dialogue with yet another song completely undermines any through line.  My kingdom for some simple storytelling.

Thankfully Alan C. Edwards‘ lush, intentional lighting steps into this breach.  From bright sunshine, to murky blues and ashes of roses, to the deepest, hellish red, the lighting establishes a mood often lacking onstage.  Sweet relief!  The excellent, spare set design by James Noone offers possibilities as well, its brick backdrop and upstage balcony adding levels to a small space.  A scrim with an enlargement of a scratchy, torn photograph of what I assume are the real Sophie and Hans Scholl moves onstage and off.  It is more heartbreaking than any song.  Dramatic shadows of balcony grill work against impersonal brick hint at the prison that awaits the White Rose team.

The performances are uneven as some actors are clearly less experienced than others.  However, it is a little hard to judge them in the absence of nuance in the script.  The same bell continues to be rung  — Ok.  We get it.  White Rose brave; Hitler sucks.  Except the script never really elaborates on why he sucks (and the reasons are legion.)  We hear over and over about the White Rose call to arms, and how awesome and brave they are to lead the charge, but very little about what the pamphlets actually say.  It is  frustrating, especially given the goldmine subject matter.  This is a story we need to hear.  Alas it is one White Rose fails to tell.

White Rose, book & lyrics by Brian Belding, music by Natalie Brice.  Directed by Will Nunziata, music direction by Sheela Ramesh, and movement direction by Jordan Ryder.

With  Pasquale Crociata, Cal Mitchell, Aaron Ramey, Jo Ellen Pellman, Mike Cefalo, Kennedy Kanagawa, Laura Sky Herman, Paolo Montalban, Sam Gravitte, Cole Thompson, Ellis Gage and Dani Apple.

James Noone (set), Sophia Choi (costumes), Alan C. Edwards (lighting), Elisabeth Weidner (sound), Caite Hevner (projections)  Liz Printz (wig design).   At Theater Row (410 West 42nd St.) Theater 3.  For tickets go to WhiteRoseTheMusical.com.  The running time is 90 minutes no intermission.