Music & Lyrics by Graham Russell; Book by Sam Goldstein & Craig Clyde
Directed and Choreographed by Keith Andrews
Produced by New York Musical Festival and NewYorkRep
Off Off Broadway, Musical
Runs through 7.30.17
Theatre Row's Acorn Theater, 410 West 42nd Street
by Sarah Moore on 7.26.17
Jordan Bondurant & Company in A Wall Apart. Photo by Michael Schoenfeld.
BOTTOM LINE: Graham Russell's ambitious debut musical tackles a love story torn apart by the Berlin Wall.
A rock musical about the Berlin Wall? What would that look like? It’s a little bit of Billy Elliot, a little bit of Sound of Music, and a little bit of Hedwig. A Wall Apart is a rock musical by Graham Russell (of Air Supply fame), set in Berlin, across the 28 years of the Wall. It’s a story about families and relationships, and how these relationships are changed, and in some ways torn apart, by the political conflict of the time period.
Esther (Maddie Shea Baldwin) is the half American/half German ingénue who chooses to stay in Berlin and study dance. She falls for Kurt (Jordan Bondurant), the middle brother of the Ostermann family. Kurt's older brother Hans (Darren Ritchie) is a border patrol captain, and their younger brother Mickey (Josh Tolle) is a free spirited musician, engaged to Suzanne (Lindsay Estelle Dunn, covering for a principal role beautifully with script in hand at the performance reviewed). The brothers live with their “Tante” (Leslie Becker), since their parents died at the end of World War II.
The book (by Sam Goldstein and Craig Clyde) tells the love story of Esther and Kurt over the years, and how they are affected and separated by the wall. It is filled with one liners as the narrative speeds by to fit in 28 years of plot; there is very little character development or explanation of what exactly happened with the Wall and what happened politically in Berlin during this time period.
All the actors are excellent and elevate the material, especially Baldwin and Bondurant, with their strong and versatile voices which easily move between the more theatrical material to the harder rock songs. They also have a natural and believable chemistry as a couple. Bondurant, in particular, has a magnetic and engaging stage presence, reminiscent of an early-career Aaron Tveit. Tolle is also great as rock singer Mickey, and Matt Rosell steals the second act with his performance of “Son of the Father.”
The production is very polished and well designed: the sets and lighting are by David Goldstein, and the believable and attractive period costume design is by Dustin Cross. All of the technical elements are much stronger than is typical for any sort of festival, topped off by excellent sound design by Shannon Epstein. The casting is by McCorkle Casting Ltd, who deserve a special mention for casting the Ostermann men with actors who actually look like they could be a family in Berlin.
Though I admire Russell’s dedication to composing for theatre (per his program bio), the music for A Wall Apart, while undeniably great and incredibly catchy, is not especially theatrical. The lyrics rarely illuminate the characters or tell us anything about the story we didn’t already get from the scene. What's more, the lyrics are often repetitive, simply restating the title of the song. Many of the power pop ballads sound like act one closers, and could use more variety of style.
There are glimpses of greater theatricality in the score. “Footsteps” and “The Everlasting” feel more like theater songs among a sea of power pop ballads. So while I’m heartened by Russell's commitment to writing musicals, this score isn’t yet wholly satisfying for a theater piece. But this is his first musical, so I look forward to seeing what he writes in the future.
For a musical about such a politically fraught time period, there’s surprisingly little conflict in the plot. The songs tend toward sweet pop, and almost everybody gets a happy ending. The Berlin Wall is mostly a backdrop to a coming of age story. The ideas and the music are worth developing, but as it stands now, A Wall Apart needs more politics, and frankly, more edge.
(A Wall Apart plays at Theatre Row's Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, through July 30, 2017. The running time is 2 hours with an intermission. Remaining performances are Friday 7/28 at 1, Saturday 7/29 at 5, and Sunday 7/30 at 5:30 and 9. Tickets are $29.75 and are available at nymf.org or by calling 212-352-3101.)
A Wall Apart has music and lyrics by Graham Russell, with a book by Sam Goldstein and Craig Clyde. Directed and Choreographed by Keith Andrews. Set & Lighting Design is by David Goldstein. Sound Design is by Shannon Epstein. Music Direction and Arrangements are by Jonathan Ivie. Stage Manager is Sofia Montgomery.
The cast is Maddie Shea Baldwin, Leslie Becker, Emily Behny, Jordan Bondurant, Mili Diaz, Jamal Christopher Douglas, Amanda Downey, Lindsay Estelle Dunn, Sean Green, Jr., Emily Kristen Morris, Vincent Ortega, Darren Ritchie, Matt Rosell, and Josh Tolle