There are many tales of resistance and survival during the Nazi regime. The musical “Cabaret,” the play “I Am My Own Wife,” and Elie Wiesel’s memoir “Night” are easily three of the best known. The persecution of Jews under the third Reich has been well chronicled in books, theater, and movies, but not so much has been written about the more than 50,000 homosexuals who were imprisoned, persecuted, and murdered simply for trying to live as their authentic selves.
“Chanteuse,” a new, solo musical play written and performed by Alan Palmer is the story of one gay man trying to make it against all odds. Palmer plays Werner, a man who in the last days of the Weimar Republic performs in nightclubs in Berlin as a woman, hence the show’s title. Werner is originally from London and might have had a chance to escape, but like Sally Bowles in “Cabaret” can’t imagine leaving the life he’s created, the freedom, and the chance for love.
As the third Reich begins rounding up gay people, Werner takes on the identity of his landlady who has suddenly died. He might have gotten away with it, too, if his heart hadn’t run away with him — proof that in tumultuous times, love and trust may be traps. This isn’t particularly a spoiler alert, as anyone with a glancing knowledge of history is aware there were virtually no happy endings for LGBTQ people under the Nazis.
The darkness that overshadows the piece has eerie, obvious, contemporary echoes as forces within our own country—anti-trans, anti-gay, anti “woke”—are increasing, even as neo-Nazi imagery and sentiments show up more and more online, and sometimes even in political campaigns, as a recent video shared by the DeSantis campaign earlier this month promulgated anti-LGBTQ sentiments to attack Donald Trump. It’s happening worldwide as well, as far-right factions are growing…and louder than ever.
Context and contemporary relevance, however, do not always make for the best theater. Palmer’s effort is notable for its passionate approach to the subject matter, and Palmer himself is a strong performer who fills the tiny space of the Here Arts Center with the story. However, while the story he tells is compelling, the 70-minute piece is almost all expository. We hear about a childhood where he felt “different,” discovering himself in Berlin, and so forth. It’s a conventional, gay coming of age story. What’s missing is more of Werner’s internal life that would make the character deeper and more human. What did he feel living as a woman? What happened when he found love in that vein? These are the questions one is left with, which would make the piece more compelling. In addition, where the songs, with music by David Legg, should amplify Werner’s deeper emotional experience, they don’t, and other than the fact that the character is a singer, with a couple of pastiche period songs that are quite good, other songs don’t make dramatic sense. Yet because we don’t have a deeper understanding of Werner and his experience, the inevitable tragedy as Werner is imprisoned lacks the emotional depth it might have had.
Dorothy Danner’s direction doesn’t help. It is far too busy, keeping Palmer moving around the small space almost throughout the piece. If it were simpler and more focused, that might have helped the audience understand the man beneath the wig, and show us something new as we are asked to revisit this horrific moment in history.
Chanteuse | Here Arts Center | 145 6th Avenue | Tues.-Sat. 7 p.m.; Sat, Sun 2 p.m. | $50 available at https://ci.ovationtix.com | 1 hour, 10 minutes, no intermission