The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings
A CurtainUp Review
Band In Berlin
By Elyse Sommer
There's a lot of fine musicality in Band In Berlin. The band of the title, German sextet known as The Comedian Harmonists -- five singers and the sixth voice, the piano player -- were the toast of Berlin and many other cities during their heyday, between 1927 and 1935. They perfectedsinging as a single voice. Their ability to mimic the sound of instruments was uncanny and is illustrated in Band of Berlin's deserved top applause getter, a vocal interpretation of Rossini's overture to The Barber of Seville. While the Harmonists on the stage of the Helen Hayes are obviously not the originals, the musical stage and opera trained group known as The Hudson Shad do a terrific job in recreating the magic that made them the Beatles of their day.
As good as the Harmonists-cum-Hudson Shad are, they don't fit the image of a young glamorous group or the kind of singers and dancers audiences expect to see on a Broadway stage. Only Hugo Munday who plays the lyric baritone Harry Frommermann is blessed with a youthful, handsome appearance. Wilbur Pauley, by virtue of his basketball player height and somewhat manic eyes, is the most individualized of the group who otherwise portray personalities that are as blended (and thus bland) as the harmony of their voices. That's where the first problem with this concert masquerading as a Broadway musical comes in. The Hudson Shads and most of the show's musical numbers would be terrifically entertaining concert or even a cabaret stage. However, they are not up to bringing off the bio-musical Band of Berlin aims to be.
That's not to say that the idea of a biographical musical about the half Jewish group is a terrible idea. Their story is an apt addition to that of many artists who were branded by Herren Hitler and Goebbels as purveyors of " degenerate art." Thus their rise and Nazi-driven fall would seem to have at least some of the potential of another dark musical spun from that era, Cabaret. This is borne out by the fact that a documentary about the group broadcast some years ago inspired two other biodramas about the Harmonists, a musical by Barry Manilow ( which failed) and a German film , which just opened.
Since Band of Berlin is clearly a much smaller musical than Cabaret, and with a very different musical sensibility, the show's conceptualizers, Susan Feldman and Patricia Birch, have taken a docu-musical approach, using filmed projections on a triptych screen ( the two side screens have identical images to accommodate audiences sitting in the side sections). Much of this does indeed add a nice flavor of authenticity and life to what's happening on stage. The images of the "degenerate art" are particularly good. However, the personal stories are all filtered through the single viewpoint of the group's Jewish baritone Roman Cycowski, who became a cantor. Unfortunately, his reminiscences are snippets and not full-fledged individualized stories. What's more Cycowski isn't Cycowski at all but the actor Herbert Rubens who comes on stage at show's end to take a bow.
I haven't yet seen The Harmonists, the German film (with English subtitles) which just opened in two Manhattan theaters, but the reviews indicate that it provides a much more complete picture of the group's private and professional lives. It also includes the women in their lives. Band of Berlin on the other hand has no gals, no glamorous guys, and German folksongs sandwiched in between the bouncier numbers -- the already mentioned Rossini overture, the delightful "Tea for Two," "Stormy Weather" and "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing". It adds up to a tough road ahead for this odd little show to survive as a Broadway musical. The show's producers would have served themselves and the show better if they had steered it to an Off-Broadway house like the West Side Arts or the Promenade where they've enjoyed surprise successes with the likes of I Love You You're Perfect, Now Change and Old Wicked Songs.
The Harmonists recorded over a hundred Cds. One which features the terrific Barber of Seville overture can be ordered and sampled here
For a review of an off-Broadway play about the artists whose work appears on the Band of Berlin screen see our review of Degenerate Art.