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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Stunning Production of
Comedy on the Bridge and Brundibar

Also see Richard's reviews of The Roar of the Greaspaint ... and I Hate Hamlet

Brundibar
Angelina Réaux, Devynn Pedell, Euan Morton, Geoff Hoyle and Gideon Lazarus in Brundibar
Berkeley Repertory Company is presenting a stunning world premiere production of Comedy on the Bridge and Brundibar, two arresting comic operas with libretti by Tony Kushner, music by Czech composers Hans Krasa and Bohuslav Martinu, and Maurice Sendak's eye catching sets that are some of the most ambitious that this repertory company has ever presented. There was a Chicago premiere two years ago but this Berkeley Rep version is larger in scale, featuring an excellent thirteen-piece orchestra from the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra and a large children's chorus.

Bohuslav Martinu's music for the 40-minute chamber opera Comedy on the Bridge consists mostly of mid-20th century music that is not melodic but interesting. Sometimes you can hear klezmer in these melodies.  Occasionally, Tony Kushner's libretto does not come across to the audience since it is much curtailed. The story involves a group of characters who become tapped on a bridge between warring armies. There is the enticing Anjali Bhimani, trying to gain entrance to her home on the other side of the bridge.  She has an exit pass to leave the enemy country but when she crosses the bridge the sentry refuses to let her in because she has no entrance pass. When she tries to return across the bridge to get a pass, the enemy guard refuses her entry because she has no pass.  The poor woman is soon joined by mischievous (Martin Vidnovic), the woman's jealous lover (Matt Farnsworth), and the brewer's robust wife (Angelina Reaux). Added into the mix of comical characters is an addled professor (William Farnsworth) who tries legalities on the two sentries to no effect.  They are all trapped in no man's land.  All have pulsating voices and play the roles comically. All hell breaks loss as both counties resume the battle with these characters harrowing on the bridge. Finally, a group of children come marching in to rescue the adults from their situation.

Brundibar is a more melodic thirty-five minute opera with Hans Krasa's beautiful score for children and adults.  This fantasy tale was performed fifty-five times at the Nazi Terezin concentration camp for Jews in Czechoslovakia.  It was begun by Jews for Jews and featured the imprisoned children of the camp.   It was even performed before the International Red Cross to show that the Nazis could provide entertainment for the inmates. The camp officials soon recognized the propaganda potential of the piece, and the opera's conductor and director, the poet Saudek, and nearly all of the children who performed Brundibar were sent to Auschwitz where they were murdered.  Hans Krasa died in the gas chamber in Auschwitz in October 1944.

Brundibar is a charming piece and the set by Maurice Sendak with Kris Stone is straight out of a Sendak fairy tale book. It depicts the town square where we see all manner of persons including a baker (Geoff Hoyle), ice-cream seller (Henry DiGiovanni), and milkman (Matt Farnsworth) selling goods to the people.  There is the formidable organ grinder (Euan Morton) on stilts who hates children and dominates the citizens with his entrancing waltz music. Two small children, Pepicek (Aaron Simon Gross) and Aninku (Devynn Pedell), have come to the town square to get milk for their ailing mother.  They have no money and they try to perform for money but the citizens and the organ grinder chase them out.

During the dead of night as the two children creep back into the square they are met by a friendly dog (Geoff Hoyle), a flying sparrow (Anjali Bhimani), and a cat (Angelina Reaux).  They conspire with the two children to get even with the organ grinder. The organ grinder is doomed by the children the following morning and the two angelic children get the milk.  The children have lovely voices and they are very skilled in their delivery. The choral work of all of the children is superb.

Geoff Hoyle is wonderful as the dog, and Euan Morton is outstanding as the organ grinder.  Anjali Bhimani as the sparrow and Angelina Reaux as the cat have crowd-pleasing voices. Tony Kushner's English translation of Adolf Hoffmeister's libretto is brilliant.  This is a pleasing thirty-five minutes with wonderful effects from Sendak and Stone's imagination.

The Berkeley Orchestra under the direction of Valerie Gebert displays astonishing force and musical dexterity. This is a determined and impressive project for the company. It is a co-production of the Yale Repertory Theatre and moves to Yale in February before going on to New York's New Victory Theater and Boston's Huntington.  The two operas play through December 28th at the Roda Theatre of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets please call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.


Photo: Kevin Berne


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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