“A Wall Apart,” a production at the New York Musical Festival, has a catchy score by Graham Russell of the Australian rock group Air Supply, sung by an eminently watchable cast of steel-voiced Broadway professionals. But its story, about two lovers separated for 28 years by the Berlin Wall, opts for a sentimental and frequently simpleminded version of history.
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Ironically, it begins with a black and white newsreel, which straightforwardly explains the events that led to the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 — how the Allies after World War II divided Germany up into sectors, with the Soviet Union turning its sector into the “German Democratic Republic”….East Germany. But immediately afterward, we get a loud, Les Mizish rock anthem in which three brothers – Hans, Kurt, and Mickey – sing over and over about “liberty, the pillar of our city/we’re going to build our city like new,” which is forcefully sung and sort of rhymes but is never explained.
It’s soon clear that the three brothers have different views of East Germany. The oldest, Hans Ostermann (Darren Ritchie), is a captain in the border patrol and a Communist out of gratitude for the government’s support after the three of them were orphaned. Mickey (Josh Tolle), the youngest, is frontman for a rock n roll band with a standing invitation to play in a West Berlin club called The Bunker; he is determined to move to the West with his bride Suzanne (Emily Behny.) The middle, Kurt (Jordan Bondurant), is ambivalent – until he meets Esther Wilson (Maddie Shea Baldwin), an American citizen living in West Berlin. “A Wall Apart” follows the family and the two lovers from 1961 to 1989, the years that the Berlin Wall stood, dividing the city of Berlin, and the nation of Germany, and the characters of this musical.
Had “A Wall Apart” appeared on stage six months ago, or maybe even three, it might have been easier for one to view it more narrowly as a cautionary tale, nearly an allegory, about politicians building walls, and not been bothered as much about what’s left out of the history it is supposed to be depicting.
Esther Wilson explains when she meets Kurt that she is half-American and half-German, her “German refugee” mother having met her American father after she arrived in the United States in 1934. Other than these oblique clues and the fact that she named her daughter Esther, we are given no indication that Esther’s mother is Jewish, much less any sense that Esther is even aware of the Holocaust.
At another point, Tante (Leslie Becker), the aunt who raised the three boys after their parents were killed, reminisces about the “miseries” of 1945 – by which she means when Soviet soldiers (“Stalin’s murderers”) “overran Berlin.”
Why did the creative team omit any real references to the Third Reich and its lingering effects? It would be difficult for them to argue that the Nazi past is irrelevant to the story they’re telling: Students of history know that East Germany justified its existence by claiming the mantle of anti-Fascism while accusing West Germany of failing to confront its Nazi past. It’s unlikely to be because the creative team is unaware or indifferent. Co-book writer Sam Goldstein has told interviewers that Zero Mostel was his “god uncle.” Did they worry that any explicit mention of the Nazi past could undermine our identification with this wholly decent family or get in the way of the feel good narrative? Would it needlessly complicate the musical’s Manichean view of Berlin Wall history?
There is a scene where Hans urges Kurt to join him in working for the border patrol, and they debate the merits of the job, and of East Germany as a whole. Hans makes a few weak but rational arguments — they’ve fed us; security is important; you can work within the system to change it – while Kurt says things like: “What’s the point of security if there’s no liberty to go with it?”
Is there anybody sitting at the Acorn in Theatre Row on 42nd Street who is going to side with Hans against liberty?
This stacked deck approach might have been more tolerable if there didn’t exist the vastly more sophisticated examples of Doug Wright’s play “I Am My Own Wife,” or even the current FX TV series “The Americans,” which present alternative viewpoints from the same era that challenge our worldview rather than lazily confirming it.
Some of this may be fixable. “A Wall Apart” is, after all, a work in progress. That status is most obvious by the sudden shift about three quarters of the way through the show, when a character comes back from the dead to narrate the remaining quarter century that has yet to be dramatized (“…Esther began teaching dance at an orphanage. In her spare time she worked for the reunification movement….”) Although three decades have passed, neither Esther nor Kurt have aged when, in one scene, they talk through the cracks in the wall, like the scene of Pyramus and Thisbe, the silly play-within-the-play, in Midsummer Night’s Dream, except we’re meant to take the scene in “A Wall Apart” seriously.
If it’s easy to pick the script apart, it’s hard to dismiss Russell’s music, which holds some surprises, such as a lovely lullaby in German, “Forlorn Fraulein,” and “Son of the Father,” performed by a late-arriving character portrayed by Matt Rosell (who was in the cast of Les Miserables, natch.) It’s one of the musical numbers that feel hard-charging enough in and of themselves to tear down that wall.
A Wall Apart
Music by Graham Russell, book by Sam Goldstein and Craig Clyde. Directed and choreographed by Keith Andrews,
Musical Direction and Arrangements by Jonathan Ivie; Scenic and Lighting Design by David Goldstein; Costume Design by Dustin Cross; Sound Design by Shannon Epstein;
Cast: Maddie Shea Baldwin as Esther, Leslie Becker as Tante, Emily Behny as Suzanne, Jordan Bondurant as Kurt, Darren Ritchie as Hans, Matt Rosell as Mickey Jr., Josh Tolle as Mickey, with Mili Diaz, Jamal Christopher Douglas, Amanda Downey, Lindsay Estelle Dunn, Sean Green, Jr., Emily Kristen Morris, and Vincent Ortega.
Running time: 2 hours, including an intermission.
A Wall Apart is on stage through July 30, 2017