A look at the musicals and spectacles that thrive amidst Berlin’s “serious” theatre scene.
I held my nose up at musical theatre and Cirque du Soleil-type spectacles for a long time – ironic, given that my first exposure to theatre was my parents’ taking me to see They’re Playing Our Song on Broadway at age nine. Maybe that was the problem: I associated musicals and acrobatic shows with childhood, and therefore immaturity. The sentiment, the phony smiles, the choreography calculated to impress rather than express: Not for me.
And yet, you can’t deny the merits of a genre that’s generated some of the best work from the likes of George Gershwin and Stephen Sondheim. In the last few years, after reluctant outings to shows ranging from Berlin Varieté (the German term for Cirque-type acrobatic shows) to Broadway’s Hamilton, even I often couldn’t help thinking afterwards: “Well, every once in a while… these things can be kinda fun.”
And Germans like this fluff more than you might think. As persuasively as some of them may sneer when they say words like Unterhaltung (“entertainment”), Germany is actually the third-largest market for musical theatre in the world, after the US and the UK. Hamburg claims to be Germany’s musical theatre capital, but Berlin boasts thriving Varieté theaters and attracts a fair share of musicals on tour. Just watch out for scams. The Tempodrom, for example, is presenting the so-called “original” production of Das Phantom der Oper this month, but it’s not the one by Andrew Lloyd Weber that premiered in 1986. This “original” was written about a decade later by a couple of German guys, touring – and disappointing – the country ever since. Even the Consumer Office of Nordrhein-Westfalen has warned against the misleading advertising for this Phantom, along with a faux Les Mis that’s been making the rounds as well.
It’s not a bad idea to play it safe with some old standbys, like Mitte’s beloved Friedrichstadt-Palast, which sold over half a million tickets in 2017. THE ONE Grand Show (photo) is their current offering, with costumes by Jean Paul Gaultier, acrobatics, pyrotechnics, black light, pole dancing and kick lines. What more could you ask of your mindless entertainment? You don’t even have to speak German. That’s also the case with the shows at the Chamäleon, which lacks the impressive stage technology of Friedrichstadt-Palast but offers a more intimate setting, more humour and less kitsch. Parade: Fear Love Circus is playing there now, with acrobatics, breakdancing and slapstick sketches.
For those who understand at least a little German and already know the 1990 movie with Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, there’s the touring production of Ghost at Theater des Westens, a translation of the show that enjoyed successful runs on Broadway and the West End. For content that’s a bit more local, there’s Rainer Lewandowski’s Doris Day – Day By Day at Steglitz’s Schlossparktheater, a musical drama that doesn’t shy away from the less savoury aspects of the film star/singer/icon’s life. And for purely light fare, there’s even a musical dinner theatre option. La Famiglia, a touring show that first premiered 13 years ago, is bringing an updated version with new songs and scenes to LaLuz, a Mediterranean restaurant in Wedding. It tells the story of a Berliner attending what turns out to be a comically disastrous wedding in Italy. Nothing to change your life, but sometimes it’s nice to go to a theatre where thinking caps are not required – or in most of these cases, actively discouraged.
THE ONE Grand Show Feb 1-4, 6-10 Friedrichstadt-Palast | Parade: Fear Love Circus Feb 1-4, 6-11, 13-18 Chamäleon | Ghost Feb 1-28 Theater des Westens | Doris Day – Day by Day Feb 6-12 Schlossparktheater | La Famiglia Feb. 2, 16, 19:30 LaLuz