Sunday, September 5, 2010

Murdering a Magnificent Musical


Last season, I made a trip to the town of Halle, to view and review a new musical entitled Poe. It turned out to be one of the few dozen most unpleasant theatrical experiences of my life.
But, yesterday, I went there again. Masochistic? I thought not. For this time the theatre was producing one of my very favourite central European musical plays, the classic Operette Die Blume von Hawaii. Last time I saw it, was in semi-professional summer-theatre at Baden bei Wien more than twenty years ago, and the chance of seeing it again, and hearing its wonderful lavish and lilting Pal Abraham music, in a proper theatre was not to be missed.
Result? Disaster. Disgust. Disillusion. One of the very worst productions of any musical that I have seen in fifty years of theatregoing, anywhere in the world.

What I saw on the stage at Halle was not Abraham and Földes brilliant and beautiful Die Blume von Hawaii. It wasn’t even a burlesque of the piece: burlesque is, after all, a legitimate art form. This wasn’t any kind of art. This was amateurism and incompetence run rife: a performance that you would shudder at had you seen it in a village hall in Paekakariki, New Zealand.

Three people have to take the bulk of the blame. The producer, the ‘dramaturg’, and the director.

The producer. Why did he want to do this piece? He evidently despises the Operette genre. Thinks himself above it. So instead of putting on the piece as it was written, he had it deconstructed, camped-up, sneered at, grossly rewritten …

Rewritten. The libretto of Die Blume von Hawaii is an admirable 1931 mixture of the romantic and the stylishly light comic, illustrated by a marvellous mixture of classic European music and the American dance rhythms then being melded into the Austro-Hungarian tradition. ‘Romantic’, however, was far too challenging for this fellow. Way outside his abilities. The whole text was reduced to a low – and I can’t avoid repeating the word – campy load of rubbish, ‘compered’ by a largely invented character in the most juvenile fashion. As for ‘comic’ .. the merry, lighthearted moments of the show, in dialogue and song and dance, were simply reduced to gross buffoonery. ‘Stylishly’? He clearly doesn’t know what the word means.

Directed? You have to laugh. Where does the German provincial theatre get its stage directors from? First Masaniello at Dessau, now this. And this was far, far worse. I didn’t invent the phrase ‘camp covers incompetence’, but I shall repeat it here. Incompetence. Paekakariki could definitely find a dozen more capable directors. This was amateur time, in the worst sense of the word. There was not a moving moment, a moment of genuine humour, an idea, a breath of scenic or picturesque enjoyment … just boring, unimaginative, old-fashioned, limp-wristed, concert-party clowning. And camp. I think that if I had to give a prize for the worst direction of any piece, from during my fifty years of musicals-going, this one just might be the winner.

The players, with a producer, a dramaturg and a director with no confidence in their material, had little chance. Those who had to sing didn’t even get an opportunity to do that, for the beautiful music, inadequately played and reorganised, could not be sung. The most magnificent musical numbers were wrecked by more guying, more stupidity, more camp. More amdram antics.
But, in any case, not one performer showed up with anything like the ability needed to play and sing this show. The Lilo Taro (tenor?) might just do for the D’Oyly Carte chorus, the Princess Laya, who did struggle to be allowed to sing, gave a feebly grotesque drunk scene which revealed the extent of her inabilities, and the Captain Stone – who staunchly did push some melody out of his small light baritone – was one of the worst ‘coarse acting’ criminals.
The actor who played the invented ‘compere’ is apparently a well-known personality. Well, he won’t want to be ‘known’ for this. Clad in cruise-ship gold lame, he creaked omnipresently through the show like an end-of-the-pier comic doing a Frankie Howerd impersonation. I had to look at my shoes with embarrassment.

I could go on in the same vein, but to what good? It is very, very rare for me to come out of a theatre unable to find one good word for anything in the production and performance of a show. At Halle, I did.

I did not get a programme, so I did not know until we were driving home to Berlin that the three criminals of the night – the three murderers of this great classic show – were, in fact, one and the same person. That figures. Three as totally untalented would be hard to find. I don’t need or wish to know the gentleman’s name, but in my humble opinion he should get out of the theatre. Or will he go on to direct Mother Courage next, in the same style? Lord forbid he should be allowed to touch another musical piece.

I am exhausted by the strength of my disgust and disappointment. And, yes, I imagine this is the most disgusted and disappointed review I have ever written in my life. And it leads me to two rather important thoughts.

Firstly: the Halle theatre is state supported. This vain, amateurish stuff is being put on with tax-payers’ money. Somebody in the subsidy department should be looking long and hard at how their money is being spent, or Halle and its theatre, and those who support it, will become a bad joke.
Secondly: Die Blume von Hawaii (which must surely still be under copyright) is, I believe, represented by the respected music firm of Josef Weinberger. Why is this firm permitting this Operette (and others?) to be textually and musically destroyed in such a way. Do not their heirs of Földes and Abraham, and their show, deserve to be better protected?

I need a very hasty ‘fix’ of good, professionally produced and played German musical theatre to wipe this nightmare out of my mind. I shall hasten to Berlin’s Kleines Theater next week in quest of it. I do not want to leave Germany believing that what I saw last night represents the nation’s abilities in musical theatre.

Postscript: comment on this article from a well-known British composer: 'If only German had the equivalent of the English 'wanker', Regietheater might have died long ago...' Oh, that it were so.

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