New resistance musical Vilna to play at the White Theater April 22-30

Vilna: A Resistance Story

The new musical Vilna opens for the first time at the White Theatre April 22-30. // Courtesy of Kevin Cloud

The brand new musical Vilna will be on stage for the first time at the White Theatre April 22-30. 

This show workshop comes after five years of research and collaboration between the small creative team. The first mind behind the show was Kevin Cloud, a songwriter and musical theater lover. He is currently the Director of New Works at the KC Culture House and has previously written three musicals, but he says this story stands out to him.

The show tells the story of a young Jewish woman Vitka Kempner who flees her home to go to Vilna, Poland, which was a free city at the time. She ends up making friends with people in town, and together they inspire people to continue to fight with the only weapon they have left: their voices.

“It’s about resistance,” Kevin says. “It’s about holding on to hope, and it’s about believing that no matter what you do, even the smallest things can make a difference.”

The show intertwines multiple stories based on real people that lived or still live in Vilna. Many of their accounts went directly into the show based on interviews with the creative team.

In 2017 a show that Kevin had been working on was coming to an end, and he was searching for a new project when he stumbled upon an article titled “A song so powerful it beat the Nazis.”

Kevin Cloud at the recording session for Vilna. // Courtesy of Kevin Cloud

This article by the Jewish Standard talked about one of the most powerful Yiddish anthems of the Holocaust, “Zog Nit Keinmol.” The songwriter was a young Jewish man from the Vilna ghetto named Hirsh Glick, who is also portrayed in the show.

“I immediately was just so inspired about the idea of someone who was in like the worst possible circumstances you can imagine, who continued to create,” Kevin says. “Continued to believe this creative work can make a difference in the world.”

Allison Cloud, Kevin’s wife, was performing in a show at the time. She would come home and see him in a “manic creative phase,” but after hearing the story coming together in his mind, she knew she had to be a part of it.

Once her show ended, they jumped in together, and for three years, they researched real people that lived in the Vilna ghetto, their stories, and the art created in this small town during the Holocaust.

Now, to be clear, neither Kevin nor Allison is Jewish, and they knew that they needed to include Jewish voices on their team and help turn this idea into a true musical. So, in 2021 they reached out to their now director David Winitsky.

Winitsky is an accomplished director and the founder of the Jewish Plays Project (JPP), an organization focused on amplifying work by and about Jewish identities. 

“We had very little, to be honest. We had written a few songs, and we had an outline of the story that we wanted to tell,” Kevin says. 

However, Winisky had never heard the story and fell in love with the idea, according to Allison. He knew an award-winning Jewish playwright to connect them with, so they could start writing a script.

Lisa Kenner Grissom is an award-winning screenwriter, playwright, and producer. She has produced multiple stage plays and documentaries that explore complex social issues and are praised for their rich stories.

With Vilna telling the story of such a historically significant event and introducing characters based on real people, Grissom and Winisky were the perfect people to help the Clouds bring this show to life.

Even though this show has existed, in some form, since 2017, the April workshop will be the first time the team has seen their show completely set on stage, with sets, costumes, and all actors completely off-book.

Although the entire team has put in months or years of work on Vilna, the Clouds explain that they don’t expect the show to be completely finished for another few years.

“Every day we’re talking and changing and fixing. But that’s kind of what it takes to get to the right,” Kevin says. “To tell the story in the right way, you just gotta keep writing until you kind of stumble into it.”

Grissom is based in L.A. but meets with the Clouds on Zoom almost every day to discuss new ideas or to edit what they have. Both she and Winisky, who is based in New York, will be flying to see the show in the White Theater.

A team gathers for the most recent reading of the script. // Courtesy of Kevin Cloud

This is a small treat for the team, who have undergone multiple brainstorming sessions, table reads, and rewrites. Even as rehearsals approach for their upcoming workshop, they are working every day to make sure they put their best work on the stage.

Even though the process can be frustrating and seem endless, their passion for the story and belief in their work keeps their eye on the prize.

“We just fell in love with the story,” Kevin says. “This story resonates with people. This idea of resistance, this idea of trying to make a difference in the world no matter how dark it seems.”

After the workshop, they will take time with Grissom to “marinate.” As the Clouds explain, nothing is more helpful than getting their work in front of a live audience. No matter how scary it can be to open their work up to criticism, they will take everything they hear and, again, make changes to the show. 

In early fall, the team is looking to go to New York for an industry read. They would hire actors and invite industry producers and investors to back the show.

They are also looking into the festival submission path. This would allow them to go on retreats where all of the writers would be sent on a retreat to workshop the show. Putting everyone in one room with the sole focus of working on the show can be invaluable, Allison says.

The ultimate goal for the show is to make it to the biggest stage in the world: Broadway. However, Allison and Kevin acknowledge how difficult it is to make that happen.

“The process has to be enough,” Kevin says. “If we don’t find just incredible joy and fulfillment and satisfaction in that process, that will never come when we get to a bigger theater. So we’re also just trying to really appreciate and enjoy being present in every step of the process.”

Allison adds that there are many other places for their show to live once it is completed. Tours, regional theaters, and licensing houses where universities and community theaters can produce them are also possibilities. 

“We don’t know enough about how to find which path is right for which show, but we’re open to wherever it can make the biggest difference in the world and in our culture,” Allison says.

With hateful, anti-Semitic voices becoming louder in recent years, the Clouds say this is an important story for the world because it fights against these people. 

In addition, when the Clouds talked to Holocaust survivors during their research for Vilna, many of them expressed concern that their stories were going to fade over time. They don’t want the battles that Jewish people went through during this time to be forgotten.

“There are very few Holocaust survivors still living,” Allison says. “From what they tell us, they’re very concerned about continuing to tell the story and how these memories are going to live on.”

Tickets to see Vilna are available now on the White Theater website. All cast members are local actors, including Allison, who will take the stage for the workshop. 

Categories: Theater