Admiralspalast, Berlin
  Opened 15 May, 2009

It’s a cultural milestone of a sort: the granting of an exemption from the German criminal law against displaying the swastika or making Nazi salutes, in the case of Mel Brooks’ transcendentally tasteless (and I mean this as a compliment) musical. The first-preview audience with whom I saw the show evidently knew more or less what to expect, but were nevertheless unprepared for the full reality of it. Germans are serious about the darkest episode of their nation’s history, and at many moments the response was a silence of hesitation, of trying to decide whether to allow themselves to laugh. But serious is not the same as earnest, and Brooks’ irrepressible humour wins out. Thus, for instance, even after the ludicrous excesses of the “Springtime for Hitler” quasi-title number, at the appearance of Adolf himself to a chorus of “Heil Hitler”, time stops for a second or two… until he simpers camply, “Heil myself.”

This is in effect a transfer of the Viennese staging of the show, which itself follows director/choreographer Susan Stroman’s original work. (She is still credited for this run.) Those who have seen the piece before will recognise and welcome moments such as the chorus of little old ladies making their Zimmer frames tap-dance, or the stormtroopers wheeling round the stage Busby Berkeley-style but in swastika formation. Some of the weaknesses remain as well. Reviewing the show’s 2004 London opening on this page, Alastair Macaulay bemoaned the primitive level of its gay humour; in Berlin, this vein is played a little more coarsely still, and does not befit the city which has given the world the Love Parade.

Most of all, though – and in the circumstances this is quite a sensitive topic on which to criticise – I felt the production to be simply too gentile. Mel Brooks’ Jewishness flows through the work as broadly as the River Jordan; the Broadway fraudsters Bialystock and Bloom are evidently both Jewish, as is much of the musical phrasing in Brooks’ score. If Cornelius Obonya as Max Bialystock does not feel comfortably Hebraic (there is even a joke about him not knowing Yiddish), Andreas Bieber is virtually the most goyisch Leo Bloom imaginable. One cannot picture this pair producing shows, as the backdrop claims, such as Katz or She Shtupps To Conquer . In the end, though, Brooks’ material paradoxically proves to be in far too much bad taste for one to be able to dislike it.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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