A CurtainUp Review
Tonight: Lola Blau
By Elizabeth Ahlfors
It's practically impossible to know what you have changed. Yes, I do get letters from people who say, 'You've changed my life' or 'You have changed my thinking.' It is not what you're out to do, you just have to speak your own mind. And if you change other people's minds so much the better. —Georg Kreisler
In a U.S. premiere, Anna Krämer brings an energized fascination to her portrayal of Lola Blau, a Jewish singer caught between the perils of Nazi-occupied Vienna and the realities she faced after the war. Tonight: Lola Blau, a bare-bones musical production with a heart, features a stylized potpourri of sarcastic, witty and moody well-crafted songs that accompany the character and the times. Krämer delivers a masterly performance with musical director Joe Völker sitting in as pianist and assorted sidekicks.
Written by Georg Kreisler, Tonight: Lola Blau opens with a thin post-war frame showing Lola sitting on the floor in 1945 remembering Vienna when she was young and hopeful, when miracles could happen even as the specter of the Nazi invasion loomed behind her. Now, after her return to Vienna, she is older, tougher, and disillusioned by the apathy and selective memory she has found.
Krämer, an engaging actress with a clear soprano voice, reflects Lola's sweet optimism in March 1938 as she anticipates a theater engagement in Linz that could fire up her career. Although Germans have invaded and emigrating friends are urging Lola to join them, she resists. When her landlord forces her to vacate her room because she is Jewish, Lola will still not leave, not while her career is so promising. She delivers an enthusiastic, "Number One Theatre Street" as she packs her clothes for Linz, but then receives a disappointing telegram from the theater: "Your engagement is impossible. Heil Hitler".
"Chin up, keep smiling, that's life", she sings, stating a theme that keeps her going through the show, even as she must pin the yellow star on her coat. She leaves Vienna for Switzerland and there settles wherever she can find work before being she is forced to flee again. When she gets a visa to work in the United States she joyfully sings, "Miracles Can Happen".
Lola finds a largely Jewish expatriate audience in the United States and builds a career entertaining with a variety of parodies. Adapting Marlene Dietrich's Lola-Lola sauciness, Lola Blau warns women to "Never Tell Him the Truth". With astute characterization she portrays a "Lady of Leisure", a matchmaker singing in Yiddish, "Sie is a Herrliches Woib (She's a Beautiful Girl)" and a sex therapist ("Sex Is A Wonderful Habit."). She finds success but not the envisioned heights of fame. She is lonely, discouraged, and homesick. Völker on piano sets the scenes musically, storytelling with a patchwork of American familiarity and European satirical cabaret.
In 1945, the war ends, but Lola is insecure about returning. When an old love telephones her, she decides, "I Can't Remember How to Forget" and returns home. There she finds little Viennese acknowledgement of what the Nazis did. She is dismayed that Austria is acting like a victim rather than a collaborator. In an amusing yet accusing barbed music hall pastiche ("Mrs. Schmidt"), Lola faces the theater impressario, "Herr Direktor", demanding, "Do you know the word, hypocrite, Mrs. Schmidt?"
Lola has as outside shell that does not admit pity, but allows acknowledgement of her strength and survival. Her story, while sketchy, is poignant. First produced in 1971, European productions of Tonight: Lola Blau often feature slide projections of the war which would add visually to the production, but Anna Krämer is a forceful actress and focusing starkly on her portrayal has its own dramatic merits. She has only a few costume changes accomplished effectively with a coat rack of accessories. Völker is notable as an accompanist, also as a pianist filling the spaces with popular musical snippets, and effective as an occasional actor.
Like Lola Blau, playwright/composer Georg Kreisler left Austria to escape the Nazis. He settled in the United States working on anti-Nazi projects and then as an actor and writer. His audiences were also Jewish expatriates. He has been politically outspoken all his life, and admitting his works were largely autobiographical, Kreisler mingled melancholy and humor to depict Lola Blau. While director Don Top believes that the pre-war anti-Semitism continued on after the war, Kreisler, in Tonight: Lola Blau reveals his message of hope with repeating threads of "Miracles Can Happen" and Lola's accepting "Chin up, keep smiling, that's life". Audience members will leave with their own feelings, probably unchanged.
Tonight: Lola Blau
Written and composed by Georg Kreisler.
English version by Don White
Directed by Dick Top
Cast: Anna Krämer, Joe Völker
Set Design: Robert Eggers
Lighting Design: Carla Bosnjak
Musical Director/Pianist: Joe Völker
Running Time: 95 minutes with no intermission.
The Club at La Mama E.T.C., 74A East 4th Street. Tickets are $15, available at 212-475-7710
Opening 3/13/09; closing 3/22/09.
Fridays and Saturdays at 10 PM, Sundays at 5:30 PM.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors based on 3/13/09 performance