Theatre Review by Wendy Guida
NEW YORK - March 8, 1999
My Grandma Sadie is fairly useless as a font of family history. She feigns deafness when she doesn't want to talk about something, or hides her hearing aid in her sock. A few times I persuaded her to tell me a bit of her youth. She got just to the good part and sighed, "Ah, but that's all in the past!" Then she changed the subject. (Her two favorite topics are how she intends to live at least as long as Rose Kennedy (at 96, she has a few years to go), and how I am so beautiful I could "sit with the president." But reminiscing is not her strong suit. How I would love to have a grandparent like Band in Berlin's Roman Cycowski, the last surviving member of Berlin's beloved Comedian Harmonists, who reminisces about his glory days with clarity and a knack for storytelling.
Band in Berlin is inspired by the true story of the Comedian Harmonists, an enormously popular sextet which was, we are told, "more popular than the Beatles." Known as the "musical Marx Brothers," they rose to fame in 1920s Germany, and eventually garnered international acclaim. They were young and handsome, moving easily on stage between playful silliness and debonair charm, possessing voices which blended into harmony so fine it was hard to discern individual singers.
In the intimate, 499-seat Helen Hayes Theatre, the show makes use of a variety of media; there are three screens on stage for slides, shadow puppets, and film created to emulate a documentary. In the film, Roman Cycowski (played believably by Herbert Rubens) is interviewed about the experiences of the band, which comprised three Jews and three gentiles. Rightly, the show does not reveal which characters are Jewish until part-way through. Religion was never an issue for them until Hitler made it so, and even then they believed that they would be protected by their enormous fame.
The music in Band in Berlin is gorgeously performed by Hudson Shad, a real-life sextet which plays the Comedian Harmonists. What a treat to hear "Wochenend und Sonnenschein," (the German version of "Happy Days Are Here Again,") and "Nuit et Jour," (the French "Night and Day.") Many of the songs are German standards, which my friend Richard, who is Austrian, recognized. He was impressed by the group's pronunciation. Though he could tell they were not native German speakers, he found their accents, German and French, to be superb. The Comedian Harmonists were also known for impersonating instruments; there is an uncanny rendition of the overture to Rossini's "Barber of Seville," done with only piano accompaniment to their voices. The musical numbers are sometimes funny and sometimes embody the elegance of a bygone era, but all are of the highest calibre musically.
Susan Feldman's concept is ambitious, but Band in Berlin ultimately misses in that it manages to make Hitler's Nuremberg laws feel like a minor inconvenience. There is never really a sense of urgency or an emotional attachment to the characters. This may be a function of the play's structure; we do not see the performers interact. They perform their songs while what action there is unfolds on the movie screen. We learn of the gradual censorship of their music. The show does devote an interesting section to the art deemed "degenerate" by the Nazis, which included the music of the Comedian Harmonists. Their songs, which included popular American songs as well as German folk songs, was characterized as "not virile enough." After their last concert in Munich in 1935, the Jewish members of the group emigrated to the United States, but Band in Berlin does not make it feel like a particularly painful separation.
There has been renewed interest in the group in the past several years. Coming soon to Broadway, Barry Manilow's first musical, Harmony, is about the group's experiences, and there is a movie soon to be released by Miramax called The Harmonists. Roman Cycowski, the company's last surviving member, died on November 11, 1998 at his home in Palm Springs, California. He was 97. We are indebted to him for much of what is known about the Comedian Harmonists and can be grateful that his memories were preserved in time.
Band In Berlin by Susan Feldman, directed by Patricia Birch and Susan Feldman, choreographed by Patricia Birch. With Peter Becker, Mark Bleeke, Tim Evans, Hugo Munday, Wilbur Parrley, Robert Wolinsky, and Herbert Rubens.
Theatre: Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 West 44th Street, New York, NY 10036 (between Broadway & 8th Avenue)
Dates and times: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 P.M., Wednesday and Saturday at 2 P.M., Sunday at 3 P.M.
Running time: Approximately 100 minutes, with no intermission.
Audience: May be inappropriate for children 10 and under. Children under 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Tickets are $65 for both mezzanine and orchestra. There are no student or standing room tickets available.
Tickets by phone: Tele-charge at (212) 239-6200, or outside the New York metro area (800) 545-2559, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Tickets on line: NetTiks at http://www.telecharge.com/
Tickets by E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tickets in person: Box Office hours Monday: 10 A.M. to 6 P.M., Tuesday through Saturday 10 A.M. to 8 P.M., Sunday Noon to 5 P.M.
Tickets by snail mail: Band in Berlin, Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 West 44th Street, New York, NY 10036.