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A CurtainUp Review
To Be Or Not To Be
By Elyse Sommer
Watching Casey Nicholaw's ham-fisted direction of Whitby's overcooked theatrical perogi, I couldn't help wondering what Lubitsch, known for his souffle-like touch, would say if he were alive. A German born Jew who emigrated to the U.S. Lubitch was way ahead of the Nazi-spoofing Producers in making people laugh at the grim realities of the Hitler era, by satirizing the Nazis and using a Polish repertory company of self-absorbed actors and Shakespeare's immortal "to be or not to be" to symbolize the spirit of courage and survival.
The current To Be or Not To Be does follow his comedy classic's basic plot of having the thespians foil a Nazi plan to entrap the leaders of the underground movement. Its few laughs come when the script sticks to Edwin Justus Meyer's screenplay (which in turn was based on a story by Melchior Lengyel and Lubitsch). But it's all weighed down by added and unfunny jokes, and diminished by ill-conceived omission and the fitful pacing. My guess is that Mr. Lubitsch would utter a pained "Ach, Nein " and probably be glad his name isn't mentioned in the program credits.
Maxwell and her stage husband, David Rasche, work hard to capture the humor of the original Maria and Josef Tura. But there's no way to match the offbeat but very funny combination of the straight-faced Benny humor and Lombard's scintillating spark. Rasche even tries to sound like Benny and emulate his gestures but the imitation Benny look and sound doesn't really suit him and I didn't find his hammy Hamlet bits all that funny.
The ensemble includes some top tier actors, but the only standout is Michael McCarty as the over-the-top Nazi, Colonel Erhard. Still, the blame for this failed adaptation rests with the script and the direction which includes an over-used moving curtain to hide the scene changes, and serve as a screen for black and white film footage — yet another reminder that this all worked better as a movie.
Maybe if Whitby hadn't beat him to the punch, Mel Brooks would have made To Be or Not To Be his next musical and made it fly up. He certainly saw enough opportunity for his kind of shtik to produce a 1983 movie remake as a vehicle for himself and his wife Anne Bancroft. While this also fell far short of the Lubitsch version, Brooks did insert a song. Interestingly, Whitby changed the name of the play the censors force the Turos to replace with Hamlet from Gestapo to A Gift from Hitler. Doesn't that just beg for a "Springtime For Hitler" tune to add a little pep to this unpeppy comedy?