Welcome to the celebration of immigrants who have enriched America. The posters hanging on an upstage backdrop at Source are photos of famous composers who lived in Germany and Austria during the Weimar Republic: Franz Waxman, Kurt Weill, Frederick Hollander, Erich Korngold, and Hanns Eisler. A picture of Arnold Schoenberg, the godfather of modern classical music, known for his “Twelve-tone scale,” is plastered on the upright piano.
These composers, as stage characters in Kabarett & Cabaret, interact and deliver songs representing the electrifying impact that grew from the Berlin Kabarett ( a German word for a satirical revue, based on news items), and changed American cabaret, the stand-up routines seen in nightclubs and our neighborhood cafes. Ultimately, these composers had great impact on Hollywood’s Golden Age of adventure and romantic films.
Over the years, three composers, Korngold, Hollander, and Waxman, have been nominated for/or won Oscars. Hollander, for example, composed music for such classic movies as The Blue Angel (1930), made famous by Marlene Dietrich. Korngold is recognized for being the first composer to receive an Academy Award for a movie score (The Adventures of Robin Hood. More about that later.) And Waxman received two consecutive Academy Awards for A Place in the Sun and Sunset Boulevard.
A semi-circle of round tables hug the platform stage and put us in Friedrich Hollander’s Tingle-Tangle cabaret. Although these composers allegedly never met in real life, all fell under the spell of Schoenberg, who unleashed atonality into classical music and everyday pop songs and even jazz. What’s unique is how all are brought together in this complex, multi-layered, cabaret, worth seeing. They clash, and sparks fly because they don’t get along. Is modern classical music for the masses or for the elite, they argue.
Before the show starts, pianist, musical director Joseph Walsh, with flamboyant relish from the bench, assumes the role of Arnold Schoenberg and slips in tragic-toned, minor chords from Beethoven’s “Pathetique.” That is until he is reminded, by cheery Kabarett Hostess (Karin Rosnizeck), decked out in black top-hat and skimpy, fur-fringed outfit, that we came “….for bawdiness.” So Schoenberg, who was dubbed “The Emancipator of Dissonance”, says although he writes for a high-brow, classical music audience, “I can be playful. After all I was influenced by Mozart.”
So saying, this musical cabaret warms up into a hotbed of satire, as directed by the multi-talented Olinick, who inspires brisk and breathless, rapid-fire delivery from his performers. “Boom, boom, boom,” is delivered melodramatically with hand-over-hearts, and gleeful, mock bravado by as Hollander (Kenneth Derby), Waxman (Brian J. Shaw), Eisler (Andrew Adelsberger), and Korngold (Jase Parker). This quartet of composers celebrate philandering, playing the field, and echo the fun-loving, light-hearted side of Mozart.
We hear in the lyrics, along with flashes of brilliance by Jesse “Ace” Croll and Sasha Olinick, how middle-class values under the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) in Germany have collapsed with the economy. This is Berlin during post-W.W.I Germany’s decline. Prostitutes walk the streets, love is for sale and “…it’s no great shame to be called a whore in Berlin!” Yet, as the show climbs to a climax, I hum along with the atonality and offbeat bounce of the selected anti-establishment songs.
The gutsy, cynical exuberance of the show is succinctly summed up in the lyrics of, “The Prostitute’s Song/”Nanna’s Lied (song)”, by Hanns Eisler, sung in Act I. It’s given a razor-sharp delivery by sopranos Jennifer Suess, as Lotte Lenya, and Meghan McCall, who portrays Hedi Schoop, (more about her later) in the Kabarett in Germany. “Even so I found it rather rough/Thank the Lord, the whole thing’s quickly over/….First, it may feel nice, but you turn to ice,/If you’ve not withheld yourself enough!” is sung expressively, with sardonic command by Lenya, who reminds us of her divorce with Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht’s famous collaborator. (Later Lenya and Weill remarry.) And the sweet ring of McCall’s soprano conveys the loss of innocence in Hedi, the girl with the feathery headband.
Then Lenya needles in: only money makes the girls hot. Intellectuals have to risk their ideals to survive. Gradually, the irony hits hard and clear in Act II. “The Prostitute’s Song is reprised as “Nanna’s Lied,” (song), Kurt Weill’s own version, another soulful duet between Lenya and Hedi, now in Hollywood. The composers may have saved their lives by leaving Hitler’s Germany; but in America, do they lose their souls? It’s a question that nags all four and raises dramatic tension. All are role models as survivors, aware of their Jewish heritage. They give up national identities to become exiles and voices for freedom, but they pay a price.
“Sex Appeal” is worth mentioning as a delightful, satiric highpoint. This number is belted out flirtatiously by Petronela, (unnamed in the program) for an outrageously funny strip tease. (A best-kept secret, you have to see the show to identify the player.) When paid with $50 Trillion Mark bills in paper money, Petronella asks: “What am I supposed to do with these? …They’re only good for toilet paper or stuffing my bra!” It’s one of the most stinging, painfully funny, revealed truths-about-economics and inflation in this show. It’s worth the admission price.
But it’s in the second half that the satire gets downright scathing, going beyond cynicism, and justifiably so. Songs from Hollywood Elegies by Eisler and Brecht rise to a high tide point. Four characters, Korngold, Hollander, Waxman, and Eisler, pass sheet music from one to the other, and sing the songs as if throwing darts at us. The songs express the rage these frustrated artists feel. The composers have to write “mood music,” for westerns and love scenes to survive, to eat. Deep down, these artists have higher hopes to write symphonies and stand-alone masterpieces.
The charismatic Jase Parker, lithe and fascinating to watch, is brilliant and perfectly cast as Korngold, a gifted child prodigy. His flaw? He detests action flicks, but reveals how he hypnotizes himself into writing mood music for the film, Robin Hood, and wins an Oscar for Best Musical Score. Korngold, the character, deserves an acting award for using method acting techniques. And Parker’s condescending scorn for Korngold’s triumph is pitch-perfect.
Embedded in The Elegies is the piece, “This city has made me realize,” by Eisler and Brecht. Bass-baritone Adelsberger, gifted with a barrel-chested, resonant voice, projects a tragic, embittered Hanns Eisler, who perhaps suffered the most of the exiles in America.
After escaping Hitler’s Germany and emigrating to the City of Angels he was branded as a Communist during the Cold War, placed on the Hollywood blacklist and called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Ultimately he was deported in 1948, forced from the country and freedom he passionately loved. But once he resettled in East Berlin, he made the best of his situation and composed the national anthem of the East German Democratic Republic, based on the tradition of embittered songs, fit for the Kabarett.
KABARETT & CABARET
February 20 – March 6, 2016
1835 14th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20009
2 hours with 1 intermission
Fridays thru Sundays
Tickets: $18 – $36
Overall, however, what makes this show fresh and new are the pithy sarcastic, gallows-humor comebacks, as for example, from Lenya, who recaps how Kurt Weill reacts to sunny California: “Hollywood won’t get me. A whore never loves the man who pays her. She wants to get rid of him as soon as she has rendered her services. That is my relation to Hollywood.”
Add to the mix are the parodies of Hitler. A new insight for me. Hitler, as “Mr. Racial Purity” was a born a bastard as revealed in “Schickelgruber,” by Kurt Weill, a singing taunt sung by the entire company.
The performances are stellar, evenly matched. The voices well-trained and beautiful. Karin Rosnizeck, who with her husky voice, effectively impersonates Marlene Dietrich, is a stand-out in a classic example of the musical art style, “News Items,” biting satire derived from a newspaper. Hitler on the Reichstag balcony asked the crowd what more could he do for the German people? And, without missing a beat, Rosnizeck, as Dietrich, responds, “Jump!” It brings down the house, just as does her rendition of “Jonny,” a Dietrich song to rouse the troops.
With so many characters presented, script-writers Croll and Olinick took the risk of confusion. Whose story is this? Each of these complex musicians, Waxman, Hollander, Korngold and especially Eisler could be fascinating one-character shows. To their writer/directors’ credit, the distinctions are clear. There’s a fine line between heavy-handed seriousness and moralizing. The directors kept our hormones hopping with the edgy lyrics and unexpected twists in the plot.
Just go! And don’t hold back if you feel like singing along with the Kabarett & Cabaret.
Kabarett & Cabaret An Evening of Song by the Jewish Emigrés in Hollywood’s 1940’s . Written by Jesse “Ace” Croll and Sasha Olinick . Songs chosen by Carla Hübner and Sasha Olinick . Directed by Sasha Olinick . Musical direction by Joseph Walsh . Cast: Karin Rosnizeck as The Kabarett Hostess and Marlene Dietrich, a film star, Joseph Walsh as Arnold Schoenberg, a serious composer, Kenneth Derby, as Frederick Hollander, songwriter, creator of the Tingle-Tangle, Jase Parker as Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a prodigy, Andrew Adelsberger as Hanns Eisler, a militant composer, Brian J. Shaw as Franz Waxman, an aspiring songwriter, Meghan McCall, as Hedi Schoop, Hollander’s dancer girlfriend, later his second wife, Jennifer Suess, as Lotte Lenya, a celebrated actress, Petronella, a stripper, played by one of the cast members, Nahm Darr, Michael Rincon, Josh Katz, Bryce Peterson, as Waiters, Messengers . Costume Design: Donna Breslin . Costumiere: Emilie Long . Lighting Design: Stephan Johnson . Set Design: Jonathan Dahm Robertson . Stage Manager: Katie Bücher. Production Coordinator: Brian J. Shaw.
At the piano: Musical Director Joe Walsh. On drums: Sam Carolla on Feb. 20,21, 26, 27, 28 and March 5. Dakota Kaylor, March 4 & 6 . Produced by In Series . Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy.