Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Where to, 'Revue'?

Eleven o’clock on an autumnal Berlin night, and I’ve thrown off my shoes and am curled up with a pile of smoked salmon, an ice-cold bottle of Köstritzer schwarzbier and an ice-cream Mars bar, while I muse on the evening I have just spent.
I have been to a sort of a premiere. The premiere of the show is actually tomorrow, but the press (intelligent idea!) were given their own avant-premiere tonight, and that meant Kevin and I. And the show…? It is called Yma (I’m not sure why), and it is the annual production at the Friedrichstadtpalast, advertisedly the largest revue theatre in Europe. Which I guess means it is a ‘revue’.

The word ‘revue’ has undergone a sea-change, evidently, from tonight’s showing, since the great days of Parisian and Berlin ‘revue’ of a century ago. In 1850, ‘revue’ satirically reviewed the years events, in 1900, ‘revue’ was the wittiest, cleverest, freshest and newest thing in town, bubbling over with freshly-minted or imported songs and sketches. Now, it could be best described as a ‘show’. The only trace of the ‘revue’ of olden times that I could discern tonight was the use of a commere, a meneuse de revue, to more or less (and rather less than more) link together the numbers of the night. For that is what Yma is: a succession of mostly sung, mostly choreographed numbers, relieved by a handful of specialities, and staged with ‘a hundred performers’ on the ‘biggest revue stage in Europe’.

Fair enough. So is bigger better? Well, my only experience of this kind of show goes back more than 20 years, to when I did the rounds of the Parisian shows – the Lido, the Moulin Rouge et al – and visited the Radio City Music Hall, New York, in the course of duty. I have never been to Las Vegas, but the man who introduced the show (in German) tonight -- theatre Intendant Berndt Schmidt, Kevin tells me -- clearly has. He must have said ‘Las Vegas’ thirty times in his introduction. I think he was courting comparison. I am told that he was snooty about the Moulin Rouge, too, although I missed that bit.
I liked the Moulin Rouge. I liked it a lot better than Yma. Even if it wasn’t bigger. It had heart, and style, and character. And the funny old building had a warmth.
The Friedrichstadtpalast is an ex-East German 1984 monolith. I don’t mind it, but you couldn’t accuse it of warmth. And the show? Well, if you have the ‘biggest revue stage in Europe’ you really need to fill it. Fill it with spectacle and colour and movement … design treats and design tricks .. girls and costumes, boys and scenery, routines and acts …
About the only place Yma fulfilled the needs on that list was with the girls and the boys. The chorus dancers and acrobats, who worked their beautiful young bodies with endless energy and flair … just like the young folk I saw the other night on the tiny stage of the Chamaleon. But you can work till you are blue and still make limited effect, if you have little or nothing to work on or with.

The first part of the show did hold a few goodies to keep things alive. There was a comical routine where the boys stripped off behind frosted (why, in 2010?) shower cubicles (all show fotos by Stefan Gustavus xix), and there was a first rate trampoline-acrobatic routine in a kinky modernist settingby a group called U-Show Team. The swimming-pool stage was put into regulation use, and anything that could fly flew. But elsewhere ... the commere was over-studied, uncharismatic and looked like a man in drag. I found out why: she was a man in drag. Why? Apparently because this is, according to Herr Schmidt, 'the gayest hetero show in town'. Hmm. I didn't notice. And talk about covering your front, back and all sides!

The male vocalist had been cast for charm not voice, and of the two overaged (?) female vocalists one (Jürgens) yowled painfully and the other (Krabbe) had merely moments of Petula-Clarkeish acceptability. Not nice, in any sense. No, you just had to focus on those splendid young chorus people and virevolteurs, their fine dancing and their occasionally fun routines …

Alas, by part two, director and choreographer had (give or take an Aenea act for a girl and two boys) run out of any ideas they may have had … the designer had never had many from the start … and the ‘half’ was only saved from disaster by the hit routine of the night: a simply dazzling aerial acrobatic performance by a Ukrainian pair calling themselves, embarrassingly, ‘The Flight of Passion’. I see from the programme that they won a Golden Clown at my dear old Monaco Festival de Cirque. They deserve it. They were amazing, and the audience let them know it. Their routine won thrice the applause of anything else during the entire evening.
So, if the music of the night was just reheated old tunes (the finale was, for heaven’s sake the 1968 Canfora/Amurri 'La vita' aka Shirley Bassey's ‘This is my Life’!), pounded out down a vast sound system by insufficient voices, if the dance routines too often lacked imagination and originality and got by only through the tireless efforts of the delightful dancers, if the solo performers were somewhere below cruise ship level and too much of the design colourless, pointless and dreary … I don’t care. I would have walked across Berlin, and squirmed through a full hour of Frln Jürgens’s yowling, just to see Dimitri and Olesya do their magnificent routine.

Obviously, ‘revue’, style 2010, is not for me. I was definitely more at home at the Chamaleon. So, who, I wonder, is it for? The ‘welcome’ at the show’s opening came in a number of languages, including Japanese. I suspect this is pure and simple coach party entertainment. But, then again, twenty years ago, I don’t suppose there were too many Parisians in the house at the Moulin Rouge. So, if things have changed rather drastically in the last century, maybe they have changed less than I imagine in the last decades.

Let me go out with an accolade. If I can’t say that, with just a few exceptions, I admired much about the show, I hugely admired the way the Friedrichstadtpalast people run an opening night. I’ve run a few myself, and know the difficulties. The vast audience of guests was ticketed, programmed, wined with utmost efficiency. So thank you, Friedrichstadtpalast for looking after me so nicely. I’m sorry Yma isn’t my cup of saki.

Well, the Köstritzer is all gone. Shame I only got one. And midnight is past. I shall sneak into bed and go to sleep thinking of the silver glitter falling from the heights and Olesya’s hair as that magnificent pair finished their act …

Postscript: This morning I have found my ticket stub, and it does not actually mention the word 'revue'. The theatre is described as 'Europas grösster und modernster Show-Palast' and the production as 'Die neue grosse mega-show'. 'Show' is, it seems, the replacement for 'revue' in the 21st century.

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