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Der Gelbe Stern

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Alexis Fishman
Photo by Alina Gozin'a

Subtlety is not typically a feature of Germany-in-World-War-II properties; when Cabaret (the original, thank you, not the Sam Mendes rethink) is about as close as you can get in terms of the stage, it's clear that sweeping points will always be made in sweeping ways. Alexis Fishman's NYMF show Der Gelbe Stern is hardly immune from this: As it spins the story of a nightclub performer in 1933 Berlin, its overall meaning is as inarguable as its title, which translates directly to "the yellow star." This is also, by the way, the name of the club in which the singer, Erika Stern (Fishman), appears.

Most of the rest of this 75-minute show is lower-key than that, perhaps too much so, as Erika struggles through her final program. That this consists entirely of pre-existing songs, most from the period, there are some jarringly out-of-period numbers from the likes of Georges Bizet, Jacques Brel, and, most bizarrely Gerry Goffin and Carole King. This does not grant the musical a consistent musical texture, or give Fishman much to work from in creating her performance. She depicts few layers to Erika at all, in fact—Sally Bowles she's not, without a hint of confliction marring an exterior that seems forever frozen in quiet terror. Fishman sings well, and effectively molds her voice to each new song as it appears, but you don't sense enough awareness of the darkness at work to give her straining portrayal the full credibility it needs.

The book, which Fishman wrote with James Millar, tries to bore into personal and societal feelings by singing around them; that's a good idea, but the songs, Sharone Halevy's direction, and Fishman lack the necessary bite for that to work. And because there's little question of what Erika's story is or what her fate will be, tension does not come easily.

The closest thing to something original or tantalizing about Der Gelbe Stern is Erika's pianist, Otto. Played by Heath Saunders with a dark smirk, he always seems to know more about what's going on than Erika does. If the few details that are dropped about him suggest he's not necessarily the type to join up with the Nazis, there's enough reason to believe he's not always on her side—or ours, either. And the constant bickering between the pair, bitterly evoking the era's central struggle between the escapers and the appeasers, generates heat sufficient to prop up the overly familiar, sagging moments that otherwise dog this well-intentioned but iffily executed 70-minute evening.

The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2014
Der Gelbe Stern
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