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Berlin

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

If you have to have a musical about the Berlin airlift, you could do worse than Berlin, the new one at the Salvation Army's Theatre 315. The show, written by Erik Orton, is as thoroughly professional in its production as it is completely pedestrian in its treatment of a potentially rich dramatic subject. In no way does Berlin or its crew of 21 performers suggest that the show is anything less than a brightly polished, large-scale Broadway hit.

The kind of confidence that this show has - and that every show needs - can't help but be infectious. It's one of the few things that is, though - just about everything else in Berlin has been seen before elsewhere. Think of this show as a cross between Les Miserables and Chess and you'll get close, though it's grounded in a more strongly defined historical reality but possesses no comparable style or score.

The result is a show that works slavishly to inform and entertain, but does neither well enough to be captivating. The situation itself is inherently dramatic: When Stalin's forces blockaded the city and cut off its electricity, General Lucius D. Clay, Germany's military governor, began working with the United States to transport food and supplies in the city to maintain the peace and keep the Communist forces at bay. The military works feverishly to support the Germans, the Germans work as hard to support them, and the Communists are trying to stop them every step of the way. It can be exciting stuff.

But Orton doesn't get there until the second act. The first act is spent mostly examining the world through the eyes of Ernst Reuter, the popularly elected mayor of Berlin after World War II, who was prevented from serving his term by intervening Soviet authorities. We see his return from an exile in Turkey, his campaign, victory, and then the setup of the barricade, along with the establishment of the characters of his wife, daughter, and the distant family member Stephanie, who was violated by the Soviets while Ernst and his family were gone.

But much of the first act so plods dramatically and musically that even the slick, attractive, and efficient direction of Jamibeth Margolis don't help the second act get there any quicker. Orton's best numbers are the stomping, provocative numbers for the Soviet soldiers and the keenly articulated campaign and election sequence. As for the rest of them, the song titles tend to speak for themselves: "Nothing More" for the German women and the Russian soldiers; "What Are We Fighting For" for the two heroes; a haunting lullaby "Gute Nacht"; a love song called "If I Were to Lose You"; and the hope for a better tomorrow in "Through the Dawn."

The second act bucks the predictability trend a bit, offering the show's one real bit of outward entertainment in "Marry a Pilot" for the single women of Germany. A couple of songs are creatively used strictly as underscoring for dramatic speeches while an extraneous cabaret number gives the cast members one of only a couple of chances to joyously kick up their heels. The airlift sequences, highlighting success and defeat are scattered throughout the second act, mostly to fine effect. But Orton can't resist the appeal of the Token Generic Anthem Ballad, here called - seriously - "No Borders for Love." At least it's attractive - it has to be, since it's sung no less than three times.

A noteworthy cast has been assembled for the show, and they look and sound great when acting or singing (under Rick Bertone's musical direction, and using his vocal arrangements). The cast is full of strong actors and singers, and it's hard to single anyone out, though Jeff Austin, as Ernst, is central (at least in the first act) and carries the show well and Nicole Riding and Chris Alan Hall as Stephanie and her American pilot boyfriend are a particularly charming and well-sung pair. But everyone is in top form. It's just that the show itself can't shine, even with such energetic, talented, and dedicated people involved.

Berlin's problems need not be permanent; 1776 proved conclusively that historical musicals need not be milquetoast. However, it explored the inner beings and passions of its characters in great depth, choosing its battles carefully and then fighting them to decisive conclusions. That's what Berlin never does. In more ways than one, the war's over long before the show starts.

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Berlin
Through September 27
Theatre 315, 315 West 47th Street just West of Eighth Avenue
Schedule and Tickets: 212.279.4200