Two years ago Charlotte: A Tri-Coloured Play with Music was presented in workshop form (more or less) at Luminato. It felt incomplete and rather muddled then and I didn’t write about it. I saw the latest version yesterday at Hart House Theatre and it feels like a finished piece; indeed a rather accomplished one.
It’s a genre defying work. Perhaps it’s closer to musical theatre than anything else but it’s not miked and there are some “operatic” moments worked into the plot. Indeed there are some very funny musical moments and much cleverness in Aleš Březina’s score and Alon Nasman’s libretto.
The story is based on the life of Charlotte Salomon who left 800 paintings, notes and musical fragments before her deportation to Auschwitz at age 26. In the play Charlotte is a young Jewish girl growing up in Berlin with an academic surgeon for a father and an opera singer for a stepmother. It chronicles in brief the fate of a typical upper middle class Jewish family as the Nazis take power; the descent from bourgeois respectability and prosperity; barely distinguishable from their Protestant neighbours (there’s even a Christmas tree), to degradation and death.
There’s a lot along the way. There’s a weird three-way thing going on between Charlotte, her stepmother and her singing teacher; an odd character who sees himself as the Angel of Death. There’s a sub-plot of madness and suicide and, possibly, sexual abuse. The opera singer angle is the opportunity for some very good singing and some cute musical jokes. This may be your best chance to hear well known numbers from Carmen sung in German as well as some Gluck auf Deutsch. There are plenty of other musical references embedded in the score, often with some wit.
A lot of explication has been cut since 2017; we know the basic arc of the story after all, and what’s left is a type one acter lasting about 100 minutes. Under the direction of Pamela Howard it’s well paced, there’s slick stagework and it’s musically and dramatically engaging. It just works as theatre.
There are some classy performances. Shaina Silver-Baird as Charlotte is extremely adept at portraying the various ages of Charlotte (she goes from maybe 12 to 26 over the course of the work). She’s clearly not an opera singer but she sounds really good in an operetta ingenue sort of way. Ariana Chris has great fun with playing an old style prima donna as well as adding the essential operatic element. Christopher Lucas doubles as the Father and the Nazi Minister of Propaganda which is kind of creepy as his wife gives herself to the latter to secure the release from prison of the former. Great acting and quite strong singing too here. There’s a bit of luxury casting in having musical theatre star Tracy Michailidis as the Grandmother. The cast is rounded out by the very imposing Andrew Cohen as a rather weird singing teacher and Kaleigh Gorka who doubles as the maid and, remarkably convincingly, an ideal Aryan Mädchen.
There’s a four piece band who all get into the action one way or another. Peter Tiefenbach leads from the piano with with Michele Verheul on clarinet, Kimberly Jeong on cello and Andrew Promane on trumpets.
Charlotte is off on tour to Tel Aviv, Kyiv and Prague. It would be nice to see it reappear for a longer run in Toronto and/or elsewhere when it gets back.
Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann