Thursday, September 16, 2010

"I am a man who knows what he wants ..."

It’s taken me a whole ten days to brave entering another German theatre, after having witnessed the despicable murder of Die Blume von Hawaii at the Halle theatre, but last night I did – and, daringly, for another evening of pre-war Operette music.

The venue was the Kleines Theater, a house in the suburb of Friedenau which thoroughly lives up to its name. It is a delicious and characterful 100-seater, with mini-stage, mini-box office, mini-foyer, mini-bar (and mini-toilets): the whole so miniature that you wonder who ever had the idea of squeezing a theatre into such a space. The theatre’s ambitions, however, are in no way miniature. This month, in repertoire, they are playing versions of The Invitation and Misery, a show about Johnny Cash, an evening of Schlager, a piece about the inescapable (these days) Frida Kahlo, and Warum soll eine Frau kein Verhältnis Haben?, an entertainment constructed around the songs of pre-war Operette star, Fritzi Massary.

It was this last, of course, that I had come – just a little nervously -- to see. Was I going to have to ‘make allowances’? Well, none were needed… at the Kleines Theater I was to see sane and witty staging and direction and delightful choreography, witness some of the most enjoyable performances I’ve seen on the German stage, and listen to some of Germany’s most beautiful 20th century music sung, if not by Wunderlich, Gedda, Ahlers, Schwarzkopf or Massary, by artists who gave their all in respectful and wholly enjoyable versions of the works of Fall, Straus and their fellow greats.

The entertainment is, thankfully, not the musical stage’s 3000th biomusical. In fact, although the actors are listed as playing, and are more or less characterised as, Fritzi Massary, Max Pallenburg, Hans Albers et al, it does not pretend to be a play at all. Author/director James Edward Lyons has simply taken three dozen of the best songs of the Massary era, and linked them together with a light-hearted and ficticious skeleton of amorous fencing, in a piece which has much of the feeling of the best of 1930s German revue to it. Along with those perfectly marvellous songs.
As a barely German speaker, I might have preferred an ounce less talk and several ounces more of the songs – but the sold-out house (read my lips, Regietheater directors: ‘sold out’) chortled away merrily, and by part two I was well in the swing. Actually, I’d been swinging in my own way since the first musical moment – when a show opens with that wonderful number, ‘Anna was ist mit mir? (Der liebe Augustin) how not? And when the first act climaxes in the musical treat of the evening, with the entire cast joining in totally adorable harmony in the ‘Lied vom Schlafcoupé’ (Die geschiedene Frau) and the Automobile song from The Dollar Princess, how not go out in the interval in search of champagne?

The ‘entire cast’ consists of five acting-singing (unamplified)-dancing players and a hard-worked, pound-away, pianist, with trombone moment. A big cast. You would have trouble shoe-horning one more artist on to this stage and, indeed, from time to time one or two of them had to pop off into the auditorium for a bit.

The Fritzi of the night was the well-known actress Agnes Hilpert, elegant in teal (though handicapped by an ugly wig) and with the necessary acting, singing and dancing skills all at her fingertips. Her performance of the famous ‘Eine Frau, die weiss, was sie will’ ('I am a woman who knows what she wants') was the solo hit of the first half, but she moved truly into top gear in the much livelier and more theatrical second part, with a fun version of ‘Im Liebesfalle’ and as the central character of a wild, Marx-Brothersish burlesque of Straus’s Die Perlen der Cleopatra. Watching her manipulate a six-kilometre yellow train through the antics of her fellow players was one of the funniest moments of the night.

But there were plenty more of them, those funny moments. The three men of the team are all three consummate comedy players. Boris Freytag (Pallenberg) is a grotesque comedian of singular talents. Hollywood (or UFA) 1930 would surely have loved him. And if his singing voice is, shall we say, minimal, he puts over a humorous song with great effect and skill. Charles Lemming, as Albers, got his big moment in the burlesque, and grabbed it with both hands, but my particular favourite was the plumpishly bespectacled ‘ageing soubret’, Franz Frickel. His opening song-and-dance routine with the soubrette (Nini Stadlmann) was a total joy – I spent the whole evening wanting to see him dance again and again – his acting and timing were perfect throughout, his voice is light, sweet and true, and he does that appealing 'frightened rabbit' look better even than Gene Wilder. And as for his striptease…!

Miss Stadlmann, in a role which required her to be everything in turn, managed to be almost everything. If she lacked the accurate soprano heights, and the breadth to sing a piece such as ‘Jede frau hat irgendeine Sehnsucht’ ('Every woman thinks she wants to wander'), she more than made up for it the moment she began to dance, which is assuredly what she does best. Actually, perhaps not, for I gather that, though uncredited, she was responsible for the show’s choreography. And that, particularly her two pas de deux with Frickel, was another of the highlights of the entertainment.

When -- too soon! -- the evening sang and danced to its end to the tune of Krasznay-Krausz’s 1927 ‘Nebenbei’ (Eine Frau mit Format), I was feeling gloriously at peace with the world. And with the German theatre. But it does make me think. If a theatre such as this with, I imagine, very restricted finances, can invent and mount an entertainment (and, indeed, a repertoire) of this standard, with performers and performances of this standard … what is going on in those large and heavily-subsidised theatres that turn out pitiful, talentless rubbish such as I saw at Halle.

Never mind. I know where I’ll be going for my entertainment when I’m in Berlin again. And, who knows, I may catch up with Warum soll eine Frau kein Verhältnis haben? somewhere else in the country or the world. For it looks, to me, like a piece that will not live and die in one production. But, whoever does it next … you may have a job to do it as well as it is currently being done in Berlin’s Südwestkorso.

Photos by Jörn Hartmann

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