Reviewed by Judy Richter
The names of playwright Tony Kushner and illustrator/author Maurice Sendak are a surefire draw as they team up for "Comedy on the Bridge" and "Brundibar," two Czechoslovakian works composed in the years leading up to World War II. Kushner has adapted Vˆ°clav Kliment Klicpera's "Comedy" libretto and created the English adaptation of "Brundibar" after Adolf Hoffmeister's libretto. Sendak has designed the Berkeley Repertory Theatre production with Kris Stone, who designed the sets. "Comedy," composed by Bohuslav Martin‰Ø, is about 40 minutes long, and "Brundibar," composed by Hans Krˆ°sa, is about 35 minutes long.
"Comedy" takes place on a bridge over a river dividing two warring countries. The five principal characters all have visas allowing them to leave one country, but not to enter the other. One at a time they try to deal with the sentries at each end of the bridge, but they all wind up together: Popelka (Anjali Bhimani); Bedronyi (Martin Vidnovic), her boss, a brewer; Sykos (Matt Farnsworth), her jealous boyfriend; Eva (Angelina Rˆ©aux), the brewer's jealous wife; and Professor Ucitelli (William Youmans). The two couples want the professor to resolve their differences, but he's obsessed with a riddle. In the meantime, the war continues, leaving all five fearing for their lives.
It's all rather absurdist, but the score is appealing. Sendak's designs are highlighted by three fanciful fish that swim in the river and frighten the people above.
"Brundibar" takes place in a small town where two young siblings, Pepicek (Aaron Simon Gross) and Aninku (Devynn Pedell), are looking for milk for their ailing mother, but they have no money. They decide to sing in hopes that people will give them money, but they're drowned out by the organ grinder, Brundibar (Euan Morton), a towering, malevolent man with a mustache reminiscent of Hitler's. However, the Dog (Geoff Hoyle), the Cat (Rˆ©aux) and the Sparrow (Bhimani) decide to help them out, along with other children in the village. Together, they topple Brundibar, and Pepicek and Aninku get the milk their mother needs.
Both "Comedy" and "Brundibar" use the 29-member children's chorus, although the children play a larger role in the latter. Both works are accompanied by 13 members of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra conducted by Valerie Gebert, who also serves as musical director. Tony Taccone directs in his sixth collaboration with Kushner. Costumes are by Robin I. Shane, lighting by Donald Holder and sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. Kimi Okada is movement director.
This production is the most expensive Berkeley Rep has ever undertaken, costing more than $1 million. After completing its run in Berkeley, it will move to co-producer Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Conn., in February and then on to New York's New Victory Theater in May with essentially the same adult cast, but the children's chorus will be locally chosen.
Although both halves of the show are well done and are musically and visually appealing, the real interest lies with the history of "Brundibar," which was composed in 1938, shortly before the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia. However, it wasn't premiered until 1942 at the Vinohrady Jewish Boys Orphanage in Prague. Shortly before that, though, Krˆ°sa and conductor Rafael Schaechter, both Jews, were arrested and sent to Theresienstadt, or Terezin. According to Kushner's program notes, Terezin was "the Nazis' 'model ghetto' for the Jews of Central Bohemia -- in reality a concentration camp and a way station for the death camps of Auschwitz, Birkenau, Treblinka."
The score to "Brundibar" was smuggled into Terezin, where the inmates were allowed to stage it for themselves and later for camp officials, who used it as propaganda to show off singing, supposedly happy children. Eventually, almost everyone involved with it was murdered by the Nazis. In addition to information in the program, there's an exhibit about "Brundibar" in the upper lobby of the theater.