Next up at the American Music Theatre Festival is a new musical, Band in Berlin, about the vocal sextet the Comedian Harmonists. The work premieres Mar. 11-22 at the WHYY Forum Theatre in Philadelphia.
Band in Berlin is written by Susan Feldman and features the sextet Hudson Shad. It is co-directed by Feldman and Patricia Birch, and choreographed by Birch (best known for her work on Broadway in shows ranging from Grease to Pacific Overtures).
The Comedian Harmonists, who rose to prominence in 1920s Germany, were inspired by well-known American groups of the era like the Mills Brothers and the Texas Revellers. Half of the Harmonists' members were Jewish, and -- as Hitler rose to power -- the group was increasingly harrassed by the German censors and in 1935 was forced to disband.
The Jewish group members emigrated to the U.S., but were unable to succeed as performers without the other troupe members.
Band in Berlin utilizes multimedia elements (including film, projections and shadow puppetry) and features songs that became closely identified with the Harmonists -- "Stormy Weather," "Night and Day," "Tea for Two," "Whistle While You Work," Duke Ellington's "Creole Love Call" and even a vocal "arrangement" of the overture to The Barber of Seville. This is the second time in recent months that the Comedian Harmonists have been the subject of a play in the U.S. The Barry Manilow musicalHarmony was given its world premiere at CA's La Jolla Playhouse in Oct. 1997, where it received mixed reviews, but is being rewritten for Broadway in spring 1999.
In addition, another play about the Comedian Harmonists, Veronika, der Lenz ist da, is currently being performed at the Theatre am Kurfurstendamm in Berlin.
And a biographical musical film in German, Comedian Harmonists, opened on Feb. 14 at the Berlin Film Festival to favorable reviews from the international press.
The singing ensemble Hudson Shad is under the direction of Wilbur Pauley, an operatic bass who has performed character roles at the Metropolitan Opera and at New York City Opera (and who last season was in the AMTF world premiere production of the John Duffy-Joyce Carol Oates opera Black Water).
The other members of Hudson Shad are Mark Bleeke, Tim Evans, Hugo Munday, Peter Becker and Robert Wolinsky. Also featured in Band in Berlin is Herb Rubens, who portrays the only surviving member of the Comedian Harmonists.
Band in Berlin is a co-production of AMTF and N.Y.'s Arts at St. Ann's.
An earlier version of Band in Berlin was seen in 1992 at Arts at St. Ann's and in 1997 at a reading at NYTW. Newsday pronounced the 1992 production "exquisite and entertaining."
WHYY Forum is at 150 N. 6th St. in Philadelphia. For tickets, $15-$25, call (215) 569-9700.
-- By Rebecca Paller