Kushner & Sendak's 'Comedy on the Bridge' & 'Brundibar'
by Richard Dodds
Berkeley Rep's double bill of comic operas is a sweet novelty that gains heft because of the circumstances surrounding the original productions. Those considerable circumstances include World War II and the Holocaust. That the contemporary adaptors of these pieces are Tony Kushner and Maurice Sendak adds to the curiosity extending beyond their modest artistic import.
The program for Brundibar and Comedy on the Bridge is thick with articles providing valuable context for the two short operas, including a heartbreaking photograph of the cast of the children who first performed Brundibar, the story of children standing up to a bully, at a "model" concentration camp near Prague. Later, most perished at Auschwitz.
That's the heavy mantle that this bright-eyed little opera wears. Told through Hans Krasa's tinkly music and Kushner's clear adaptation of the original libretto, Brundibar is the story of two penniless country children who come to town in search of milk for their ailing mother. Inspired by the success of the organ grinder at pulling in coins, they try their hand as street entertainers before the bullying organ grinder runs them off. With the fairy-tale help of a bird, a cat, and a dog, plus all the town's children, they manage to turn the tables on the organ grinder. It's a happy ending undercut by a cautionary coda.
It may be a slight tale, but this production, which will end up in New York, is not a budget affair. With the ornately whimsical sets and costumes based on Sendak's designs, it features a cast of 10 professional actors, 15 symphony musicians, and a chorus of 30 children. It's a far cry from its modest concentration-camp debut, but ultimately needs that connection to earn a respect that is still more social than artistic.
While Brundibar is very much a children's show, its companion piece Comedy on the Bridge is more of a grown-up affair. A satire on the absurd arbitrariness of war, and commissioned by Prague Radio in 1935, it has a score by Bohuslav Martinu that incorporates both the sounds of grand opera and its more modern derivations.
The setting is an old stone bridge connecting to warring countries that soon fills up with sparring couples who find themselves unable to get past the sentries on either side. It's an amusing tale that gets an assist from such Sendak touches as a cartoon dirigible floating by and the roly-poly fish that live under the bridge.
Director Tony Taccone has assembled a first-rate cast of Broadway veterans for the two pieces. Among them is Euan Morton, who won praise for his performance as Boy George in the London production of Taboo , and repeated it in the short-lived Broadway edition. After his small role as a sentry in Comedy on the Bridge , he commands the stage as the stilt-walking organ grinder in Brundibar, providing a deliciously comic performance as a fussy bully.
Comedy on the Bridge and Brundibar will run at Berkeley Rep through Dec. 28. Tickets re $50 - $64. Call (510) 647-2949 or go to www.berkeleyrep.org.Â