A New One-Person Show That Explores the Question: What Does Survival Mean to You?
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: Richmond Triangle Players at the Robert B. Moss Theatre, 1300 Ave. RVA 23230
Performances: January 13 – 23, 2022
Ticket Prices: $10 – $40
Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org.
Have you ever been to a production where you clapped at the end, not because of the content of what you had just experienced, but because you could think of no other way to acknowledge the artist’s performance? That’s what the audience collectively experienced on Thursday night after Alan Palmer uttered the final words of Chanteuse: A Survival Musical.
Palmer wrote the script and lyrics and stars in this moving one-person musical, set in Berlin in 1933. The music is by David Legg and for this limited Richmond run the inimitable Kim Fox performed the roles of musical director and conductor.
Walking into the space, the audience was immediately drawn into the scene. Small tables with lamps lit by flickering tea candles that suggested the intimacy of a Berlin club were distributed throughout the house. The stage itself was darkly lit, suggesting something ominous was about to happen. There was a mannequin with a dark gown or robe topped by a dark wig, and there were several set pieces covered in black fabric. The darkness, however, was not just a physical effect of the lighting, and stage properties, but there was also a palpable emotional element that lingered heavily, a portent of things to come.
The back wall was mostly brick but accented with a center arch that served as a projection screen and two sections of rough-hewn wooden pallet on either end. The horizontal slats of the pallet sections suggested some sort of confinement, while allowing a glimpse of the band stage left. That’s how I was able to see that the instrument that was churning out soul-tearing melodies was actually a bass, although Jonathan Wheelock magically and skillfully made it sound like a cello.
Palmer entered into this space and immediately captivated the audience with the horrific story of one queer man’s tale of life and survival in Nazi Germany, where being queer, a cross-dresser, Jewish, or mentally or cognitively challenged were sufficient cause for being detained, brutalized, and ultimately killed.
But all was not doom and gloom. The first half of the one-hour solo musical, performed without intermission, had several moments that allowed Palmer, an actor, dancer, and real-life Power Ranger (he played Corcus on The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers TV series, 1993-1996) to dance, strut, change clothes, tease, titillate, and morph from a gay male performer to living life full-time as a female chanteuse in a supper club in Berlin.
A raid on Club Silhouette sends his life (do we ever really learn his name? he is telling his own story, so we never hear anyone call him by name) into a tailspin. Now, if you plan to see this show, you might want to skip the next paragraph, but since this is a limited run, by the time you read these words the show will likely have closed, therefore what follows is technically not a spoiler – I am alerting you out of courtesy so that you know that I am a civilized and cultured person. So…on that note…
The sudden death of his long-time landlord turns out to be a blessing in disguise. You see, they had become friends, and even looked somewhat alike, so it seemed like the best way to honor his friend’s memory (there are untold secrets involved) and simultaneously assure his own safety from the homophobic Nazi’s was to assume the identity of the late Frau Friederick. On the positive side, this transformation led him to find true love. Ironically, our protagonist transformed from a gay male into a woman in order to protect himself from the Nazi’s only to discover – too late – that Frau Friederick had been hiding the fact that she was Jewish.
Chanteuse begins in the decadence, freedom, and sometimes glamor of the Berlin club scene and ends, not with a bang but a whimper, in the soul-killing Sachsenhausen concentration camp – a labor camp for prisoners and training ground for SS officers that housed separate sections for political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Soviet POWs, Poles, Jews, Homosexuals, and Freemasons. While there, he reunites, briefly with his partner, Yakob, to whom he was illegally yet lawfully married (using Frau Friederick’s ID). Is it any wonder this leads him to begin to pray in Hebrew? “Baruch ata Adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, sh’hecheyanu, v’kiyemanu, V’higianu, lazman, hazeh.” (Praised are You, the Eternal One our God, Ruler of the Cosmos, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this moment.)
And here we have the point of the plot. Survival. In this moment. And suddenly the past is united with the present and the future. A moment in time telescopes into another moment in time. Past becomes present, and we have to ask ourselves, what have we learned? Indeed, what have we done?
So you see, it was necessary to explain the applause. The applause was not for the experience we had all just shared. The applause was not for the message we were processing. The applause was for the messenger, and the brilliant and unpretentious way he delivered that harsh message.
Chanteuse: A Survival Musical is/was here in RVA for only eight performances, and Palmer has plans to open in London sometime later this year. I haven’t yet been to London, but I always keep my passport up-to-date. Now I know that flying off to London to see a show may not be realistic for most of us; my point is that this intelligently and beautifully produced musical needs to be seen.
Kudos to director Dorothy Danner for keeping Palmer’s pacing and blocking flowing organically and breathing a breath of life into these words that Palmer then exhaled over us all. David Legg’s music was dynamically connected to Palmer’s words, and Kim Fox’s musical direction guided us along the right paths of emotion.
Chanteuse: A Survival Musical
Created by and Starring Alan Palmer
Director – Dorothy Danner
Music – David Legg
Book and Lyrics – Alan Palmer
Lighting Design – Joe Doran
Audio Engineer – Brandon Duncan
Technical Direction – Vinnie Gonzalez
Production Stage Manager – Crimson Piazza
Musical Director and Conductor – Kim Fox
The Band – Kim Fox (Conductor and keyboards), Chris Sclafai (saxophone), Joe Lubman (percussion), Jonathan Wheelock (bass)
Richmond Triangle Players at the Robert B. Moss Theatre in association with Palmer Productions
Richmond Triangle Players at the Robert B. Moss Theatre has returned to full-capacity seating and requires proof of vaccines or recent PCR rest results for entry. See the theater’s website for their COVID-19 precautions, digital programs, and more.
Photos: from Alan Palmer’s website and Google.com
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