Plenty of lovely music — ineffably sweet and sad and evocative of a lost era — runs through “Band in Berlin,” an unlikely new entry on Broadway that mixes the pleasures of a novel cabaret act with the drearier stuff of a high-school history lecture, replete with slightly cheesy visual aids. Despite the handsome harmonizing by five supremely talented vocalists, “Band in Berlin” is not really a musical. Unfortunately, it’s not really a play either, and the show is probably not distinguished enough as a unique theatrical experience to endear itself for long to demanding Broadway audiences.
The show is a tribute of sorts to the musical legacy of a German singing group called the Comedian Harmonists. The band, which rose to worldwide fame in the ’20s before being forced to disband by the Nazis in 1934, is enjoying something of a vogue right now. “The Harmonists,” a German movie tracing their rise and fall, will be released Friday, and Barry Manilow — of all people, one feels impelled to add — has already premiered his own more traditional musical-theater take on the troupe. His show, “Harmony,” bowed to mixed reviews at the La Jolla Playhouse last year and is talked about for Broadway next season.
“Band in Berlin” stars the vocal group Hudson Shad, a sextet modeled on the Harmonists (five male vocalists and a pianist) that specializes in singing their distinctive repertoire. The lion’s share of the show — and all of its entertainment value — derives from their note-perfect re-creations of the Comedian Harmonists’ signature vocal arrangements. They sing everything from unknown novelty numbers, such as “Dearest Isabella From Castille” (with music by Harmonists pianist Erwin Bootz), to pop standards of the period, including a haunting “Night and Day” and a winsome, wordless take on Duke Ellington’s “Creole Love Song.” Perhaps most delightful of all is an a cappella vocal rendition of the overture from “The Barber of Seville,” with the singers impersonating various instruments with uncanny verisimilitude and puckish delight.
Between the almost two dozen musical numbers, we are treated to a sketchy voiceover narrative describing the group’s humble beginnings, meteoric rise to fame and eventual disbanding when Hitler’s increasingly repressive cultural policies outlawed the group for their mixed racial makeup (half of the members were Jewish, by Hitler’s definition).
But the manner in which this material is delivered is theatrically lifeless: a movie screen descends every few minutes, on which an actor playing the group’s last living member recites the details to an unknown interviewer in a sort of fake home movie. (The text presumably comes from real interviews with Harmonist Roman Cycowski, who died in November.) The artificial nature of this documentary-style presentation robs it of even such interest as it might have had — would millions have watched an actress playing Monica Lewinsky giggling away to Barbara Walters? But even if the film had featured the actual man, it’s a cumbersome device on a stage.
Also displayed on the central screen and two side screens are film and slide shows that include montages depicting Hitler’s rise and a visual history of art and artists banned by the Nazis. This history is well-trodden ground, of course, and isn’t presented here in an aesthetically engaging manner. All too often it’s like watching a PBS documentary with the wrong soundtrack.
Only occasionally do the visual elements and the vocalizing of the singers’ combine in illuminating ways, most arrestingly when images depicting the spreading power of Hitler give chilling new meaning to the lyrics of “Night and Day”: “Like the beat, beat, beat of a tom tom…”
And sometimes they combine in ways that leave us wondering what attitude we’re supposed to take toward the Harmonists, who apparently kept pursuing their career and even singing for SS stormtroopers as Hitler’s merciless policies were wreaking havoc on Germany’s Jews. (“Hitler spoiled everything,” gripes the narrator — a rather startling understatement.)
The show’s creators — writer, co-director and conceiver Susan Feldman, co-director, co-conceiver and choreographer Patricia Birch and co-conceiver and music director Wilbur Pauley (got that straight?) — make some strange judgment calls. It’s in questionable taste to show disturbing films of Jews being assaulted and follow it minutes later with the performance of a cutesy cowboy tune called “The Last Roundup.”
The singers of Hudson Shad are a marvelously talented bunch who perform with commanding style and wit, and the smooth, syncopated vocal arrangements of the Harmonists are pieces of music that indeed deserve to live on. But no amount of sweet singing can disguise the fact that “Band in Berlin” is a distinctly awkward stage vehicle.