Musical `Roza' pays tribute to a tough, happy, generous survivor

Roza Musical by Julian More (book and lyrics) and Gilbert Becaud (music), based on ``La Vie Devant Soi,'' by Romain Gary. Directed by Harold Prince. Choreographed by Patricia Birch. Starring Georgia Brown. ``Roza,'' at the Royal Theatre, takes Broadway playgoers on a sightseeing visit to Belleville, an immigrant quarter of Paris in the 1970s. While modifying events and circumstances to suit their own condensation, librettist-lyricist Julian More and composer Gilbert Becaud have remained substantially true to their source, Romain Gary's novel ``La Vie Devant Soi'' (``The Life Before Us''). Staged by Harold Prince and starring Georgia Brown as the irrepressible Roza, the new musical version brims over with life-affirming gusto and a joy that defies the pathos of the situation.

``Roza'' takes place in and around the seventh-floor walk-up flat of a Parisian quarter inhabited by a cross section of immigrants. Roza, a former prostitute, operates a temporary home for children of fellow prostitutes until the youngsters can be adopted or reclaimed by their mothers.

Tough, amply proportioned, and with a heart to match, Roza describes herself as a one-woman UNICEF. As she scrubs her young charges, prepares their meals, bullies and coddles them, Roza unfolds her own life story. A Polish Jew who survived Auschwitz, she keeps a picture of Adolf Hitler - a reminder that she is still here and he isn't. Roza also shares confidences with Lola, a newcomer to the tenement, a transvestite played with disarming delicacy by Bob Gunton.

By the end of Act I, adoptive homes have been found for all but Momo among Roza's charges. In Act II, Momo begins acquiring a teen-ager's perspectives while he and Roza's other friends fight to slow the mental and physical deterioration of the fatally ailing old survivor.

Mr. Becaud's score ranges from ``Happiness,'' belted out with her characteristic hoarseness by Miss Brown, to the plaintive ``Moon Like a Silver Window,'' wistfully sung by the young Momo (Max Loving), the Arab boy whose rows with Roza do not prevent his becoming her mainstay and protector. ``Roza'' can also break out into ebullient ensembles like ``Get the Lady Dressed'' (in which Roza dons her sequined red gown) and ``Sweet Seventeen''; or take off for a vaudeville twosome, ``Merci,'' by teen-age Momo and Moise (Alex Paez and the acrobatic Joey McNeely). Mr. Gunton duets with Miss Brown in the amusing ``Don't Make Me Laugh,'' and Mr. Gunton does an exotic voodoo bit in ``Lola's Ceremony.''

The performance staged by Mr. Prince revels in the polyglot atmosphere of the Belleville quarter. Among those who contribute to the prevailing humanity of the musical are Al DeCristo as a circumspectly bribed official, Ira Hawkins as an effusive travel agent, Jerry Matz and Marcia Lewis as neighborly Dr. and Mrs. Katz, Stephen Rosenberg as young Moise, and Neal Ben-Ari doubling as a Muslim sage and Momo's long-lost father.

Alexander Okun's setting (lighted by Ken Billington) is a labyrinth of stairways, passages, and crowded rooms - all slightly askew. Roza's house looks not only lived in but lived over and lived under. It is a marvel of picturessque squalor. Florence Klotz has costumed ``Roza'' to meet its myriad ethnic demands. Michael Gibson orchestrated the Becaud score, and the solid musical performance is conducted by Louis St. Louis. ``The Life Before Us'' was well named. Beginning as a novel, it proved itself as a French film starring the late Simone Signoret, and has now become a worthy candidate for Broadway attention.

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