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Brundibar & Comedy on the Bridge
The wildly talented illustrator Maurice Sendak's set designs are almost reason enough to recommend Berkeley Repertory's presentation of two one-act comic operas Comedy on the Bridge and Brundibar.
Adapted by playwright Tony Kuschner, the plays were originally performed in prewar Czechoslovakia. Brundibar, a children's opera, went on to become a showcase piece for composer Hans Krasa, performed many times to boost spirits at the Nazi's "model" concentration camp Terezin, before Krasa and most of the child performers were shipped to Auschwitz. Foreknowledge of that tragic ending dominates the presentation and colors ones appreciation of the two works in joint performance.
The 40-minute Comedy is a so-called absurdist sketch about several citizens who become trapped on a bridge between warring armies. The original composer's melodic score is worthy of its operatic ambitions, and the performers are excellent, with fine voices. Anjali Bhimani plays a beautiful rather mysterious woman barred from crossing the bridge between opposing cities by bureaucratic sentries; she's joined by a dashing businessman Bedronyi (Martin Vidnovic), who quickly steals a kiss, but they're soon discovered by her jealous lover Sykos (Matt Farnsworth) and Bedronyi's suspicious wife (Angelina Réaux).
The climax is reached after a diversion about Sykos's attempt to kill himself and some rather forced bits about a confused professor (William Youmans) who joins them on the bridge-but the story is too madcap for an affecting war piece and never truly engages us as comedy. In fact, I found myself annoyed that I had to sit through this lesser known work while waiting for the much heralded Brundibar -- a sentiment apparently shared by the impatient response from the audience.
Things picked up considerably after the intermission with the colorful, magical, musical, Brundibar (I found myself trying to imagine how the rather short little children's opera could have been expanded…perhaps with the "Bridge" piece somehow incorporated. But the two are too different in mood and intention.) Brundibar sails along with the sheer charm of the visual magic and the exuberance of the large talented children's chorus. The costumes are stunningly colorful and the lighting brilliant. The musical score is best appreciated as an artistic example of mid-20th century composition. And the simple story line, though noble and eventually inspiring, seems incomplete and unconvincing even in its modern adaptation by the always estimable Tony Kushner.
The story opens in a rustic village square where two poor children are trying to earn some money to buy milk for their ailing mother. The children, sixth-grader Aaron Simon Gross as Pepicek and third-grader Devynn Pedell as Aninku, are perfect for the parts: sweetly attractive, and remarkably talented with sure, winning voices. They try singing and are intimidated and rebuffed by the title character, Brundibar (played brilliantly by Euan Morton), the oversized (on stilts) menacing organ-grinder who dominates the town square.
Rejected on all sides by the selfish town officials and merchants, the children eventually triumph with the help of a wily Sparrow (Anjali Bhimani), a cunning Cat (Angelina Réaux) and a roguish Dog. Popular clown Geoff Hoyle is delightful as the comic canine mongrel.
Neither Kushner's lyrics nor Krása's music succeeds in making Brundibar seem as terrible a monster as the story demands, despite his spiteful solo about hating children. We do not delight in his rather violent overthrow by the valiantly united town children's chorus, however progressive its uprising is envisioned. (Described by Kuschner as "good socialist propaganda for children".)
For all its manifest delights, Brundibar falls short of its virtuous aspirations, and is best appreciated in terms of its Holocaust framework. Produced with Yale Repertory Theatre. the show moves to New Haven in February before going on to New York and Boston.
Leonard Maltin's 2006 Movie Guide
Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide
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