Despite the marquee value of collaborators Tony Kushner and Maurice Sendak, this double bill of semi-obscure operatic one-acts proves a pleasant but minor affair. Curtain-raiser “Comedy on the Bridge” is a somewhat labored exercise that’s longer than the post-intermission main attraction, “Brundibar,” a delight of significant historical interest that would be ideal family fare if kids didn’t have to sit through “Comedy” first. Elaborate Berkeley Rep-Yale Rep co-production is skedded for future dates in New Haven, Gotham and possibly beyond, though it seems unlikely to travel so widely as Kushner’s more imposing prior music-theater venture, “Caroline, or Change.”
Deploying everything from children’s choir and pit orchestra to Peter Pan-like flight, Tony Taccone’s production is a pricey entity by nonprofit theater standards. The expense certainly pays off in visual terms, as Sendak (sharing credit with Kris Stone) contributes enchanting sets that look like pop-up storybook illustrations in his distinctive style.
That does only so much to juice the static “Comedy,” Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu’s adaptation of a 19th century play by Vaclav Kliment Klicpera. These farcical 45 minutes find pretty Popelka (Anjali Bhimani) and her brewer ex-boss Bedronyl (Martin Vidnovic) trapped on a bridge when they return from separate business on the “enemy” side of town during wartime.
Their predicament draws her boyfriend (Matt Farnsworth) and his wife (Angelina Reaux). They, too, end up stuck on the overpass — later joined by Professor Ucitelli (William Youmans) — as sentries on each side (Euan Morton and Geoff Hoyle, in speaking roles) claim their visas are good for just one-way passage.
Eventually, the terror of air bombing ends all tiresome spatting, and a permanent cease-fire assures petit-bourgeois life will go on.
Written in 1935 but redolent of an earlier era’s marzipan operetta-style frivolity, “Comedy” doesn’t make a very forceful antiwar statement — though clearly that element attracted Kushner. His libretto (listed as adapted directly from Klicpera) is more ponderous than witty, with awkward lines like “You lousy heartbreaker you” and “I just go nuts cuz I love you so much” chafing against a pleasant, forgettably frou-frou score. The performers and staging are admirable but ultimately seem a bit wasted on this silly material.
No such reservations apply to children’s opera “Brundibar,” whose notoriety derives from its performance by internees at the Bavarian “model ghetto” Terezin. Perfs were glimpsed in infamous 1944 Nazi propaganda film “The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City,” which fooled international authorities by faking a healthy, happy life for its Jewish populace. In truth, Terezin was a heavily guarded, poorly supplied waystation for those destined for concentration-camp gas chambers. Czech composer Hans Krasa, its original conductor, director and nearly all the child singers died at Auschwitz.
Needless to say, this historical background lends “Brundibar’s” innocuous message — bullying is bad — an amplified, terrible resonance. “Little starvelings” Pepicek (Aaron Simon Gross, a superb singer) and Aninku (Devynn Pedell) travel to town in hopes of getting milk for their sickly, widowed mother. But they find hard cash, not charity, is the currency here. Attempts to attract both by singing in the public square nearly result in their arrest, thanks largely to the furious response from organ-grinder Brundibar (a delicious Morton, on stilts), who was bullied as a child and now delights in bullying small fry as a very big grownup.
Our sibling protagonists’ complaints are heard by animal allies who’ve also suffered Brundibar’s abuse — a Dog (Hoyle), Cat (Reaux) and wire-flying Sparrow (Bhimani). Next morning, latter trio rally all town’s children to pull their chief nemesis down a peg or three.
Their triumph is qualified, however, by sneering Brundibar’s brief spoken reminder — no doubt a Kushner addition — that bullies never really go away, they’re just replaced by new ones. It’s an implicit antifascist message whose application to our own era is hardly left in doubt.
Adapting Adolf Hoffmeister’s original libretto, Kushner operates in a more straightforward albeit humorous mode that serves the delightful music perfectly. Score’s hints of klezmer, contemporary European cabaret and jazz are couched within melodies accessible to (and singable by) a “singing army” of juvenile performers who will be recast at each local stop of the production.
Granted more scene changes than “Comedy” affords, Sendak & Co. make “Brundibar” a treat for the eyes, the set’s wry whimsicality echoed by equally first-rate costume, lighting and choreographic contributions. The cast is excellent, though practiced comic actor Hoyle is a bit of a sonic sore thumb among fellow adult performers with greater vocal training/ability.
Berkeley Symphony Orchestra members ably perform in the pit under Valerie Gebert’s baton. Sound design for this complicated effort at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theater was excellent.