All Things Entertaining and Cultural
The veteran cabaret performer uses a barrel-house piano style to launch into the lively, tuneful, happy rhythms heard in Berlin in the years between two catastrophic World Wars. He uses songs by Kurt Weill and others to show the poetry and portent of the entertainment during a giddy, heady period when comedy and satire held equal sway with romance and sentiment in a free-wheeling world that embraced diversity and individuality. He talks wistfully about how Berlin became a capital for artists, Bohemians, and people who wanted to have a good time, express themselves, and belong to themselves alone without inhibition. Weimar, for all of its poverty and inflation, is a haven for freedom that doesn’t suffer from Victorian views, Prussian severity, or conventional morality. It is a time and place to forget one’s troubles and celebrate life that seemed so tenuous from 1914 to 1918.
As with most eras that can’t last, even those as idealized and romanticized (perhaps overidealized and overromanticized) as Germany in its Weimar period, grim reality awaits on the horizon. As Weill, Friedrich Hollaender, whose lyric about being his own person serves as leitmotif for Nadler, Kurt Schwabach, Mischa Spoliansky and others laud the openness and gaiety of Weimar, Deutschland is beginning to rearm, and groups that would rather wield power than accept human variety are becoming strong, particularly the Nazis led by Adolf Hitler.
In “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” at the Prince Music Theater, Nadler takes on the sisyphean task of marrying the music of Weimar with the history of the time, including his own history, his Jewish grandfather being a Bavarian judge who protected a defendant from being overly punished because he was gay. While all Nadler says is interesting and worth hearing, there is a question about whether the lecture he prepares fits in a theater presentation. “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” becomes an odd entertainment that seems to use music to illustrate an educational session rather than the other way around. In the context of cabaret or theater, much of what Nadler presents is too preachy and too pedantic for the setting he’s chosen. His show becomes self-conscious and self-serving in a way that mitigates the songs Nadler performs and the consummate skill with which he performs them. Cabaret shows are entitled to have patter and commentary, but Nadler makes his history lesson the primary part of his piece. Quarters of hours pass before a song emerges, and the balance of “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” tumbles off kilter. It is not about the music of Weimar. It is about the incursion of Nazis, the persecution of Jews and gays, the end of an era that looked to have the potential to foster an open, truly democratic society, and the way all of this affected Mark Nadler’s family and the man he is today.
Nadler’s delivery is deep and heartfelt. You can see the angst and anger of a gay Jewish man discussing a government that had an official policy to imprison and eliminate all gays and Jews. You hear the venom when Nadler informs that gays remained in jail after concentration camps were evacuated, and political prisoners were set free. The problem is “deep” and “heartfelt” don’t add up to compelling. “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” frequently becomes heavy-handed and dense, with information being laid on with a trowel. Genuine sentiment and felicity of storytelling are lost in what becomes an unexpected diatribe. Nadler may have intended to expand the parameters of cabaret, and his scholarship is admirable, but his show suffers from overkill when it needed the charm and finesse with which Weill and Howard Dietz skewered Hitler in their song, “Schickelgruber,” which Nadler sings, or with which Charlie Chaplin lampooned the Nazi leader in “The Great Dictator,” scenes from which play in the background as Nadler speaks of Weill and Dietz’s satire.
Instead of using slyness and subtlety, Nadler struts across the Prince stage in a goose step, does the Nazi salute while issuing ‘sieg heils,’ and makes a lame and snotty joke about Hitler’s actual first name, Aloys. The same performer who demonstrates such wit and perspective when he sings and plays the piano lumbers clumsily and with almost no humor as a lecturer. Wit and taste vanish in a storm of juvenile overstatement. Poignant moments, such as when Nadler reveals the significant role Weill’s “J’attends un Navire,” written with Jacques Deval and Roger Fernay, played in the Resistance by being its theme song, or when he talks about the almost last-minute rescue of his grandmother, Fanny Rothschild, from Germany in 1940, are swallowed by less adroitly related stories that tire us out and leave us less receptive to passages that might be affecting. Most of what Nadler chooses to discuss has consequence, but his narrative is not conveyed in a theatrical way. It’s usually overdramatic and pitched in the language of the classroom rather than the patois of the theater.
I found Nadler’s show interesting in its way but not entertaining. I didn’t even see a will to entertain during the long passages when Nadler read from books or spouted facts. At times, violinist Vena Johnson and accordionist Rosie Langabeer would accompany Nadler’s fact deliveries, but their music never leavened, softened, or sufficiently augmented what Nadler was sharing. “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” features 14 songs and several sequences in which Nadler dances and exudes the tone of Weimar devil-may-care, yet I thought the show musically void. The tunes of Weill and others seemed secondary to the commentary. Songs were sporadic. The introduction for “J’attends un Navire” was so long, the melodic, symbolic, beloved song seemed anticlimactic when it was finally performed. Nadler talks himself out of a show, and that is a shame because the musical passages of “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” are so enjoyable and, at times, express the story Nadler wants to tell better and more potently than his words.
The irony of “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” is Mark Nadler is a born entertainer. Before his age hit double digits, he was singing and playing the piano in nightclubs in his hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. To escape the bullying that would rain on a gay Jewish lad in an Iowa high school Nadler was sent to the famous Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. He came to New York and honed his skills in piano bars and nightclubs that in Manhattan were called cabarets. He was the musical director for major singers and amassed a wealth of presentational and background experience before he began asserting himself in his own shows.
The musical portions of “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” show this experience and polish. Nadler is an assured singer and pianist. He finds the pith in a song and emphasizes its most salient passages. He builds numbers with stylish professionalism. He plays the piano with an entertainer’s zeal and an artist’s panache. He can sing with meaning to Johnson and Langabeer’s vioin and accordion accompaniment. He can dance. And he can act.
What Nadler seems to forget is how to set the actor’s pace and the actor’s knack for bringing the audience to him when he launches into lecture mode. The assured entertainer is replaced by the dry and scolding pedant that drones on more than amuses. A bit in which Nadler goes into the audience is particularly misjudged. (Also, when one is going to raise his leg so his shoe is seen in the lights, one should polish the shoe.)
The refuge is more music, music he can interrupt Victor Borge-like to make points a song can accent. Fourteen songs is enough for any cabaret. It is one more than the standard number of tunes suggested for a hourlong set. They are not enough for “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” because they leave Nadler too much time to talk. I doubt that I am alone in preferring to hear more Kurt Weill, more Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, more Friedrich Hollaender, and more examples of the variety of tunes the Weimar era yielded, in Germany and beyond as Nadler’s title says.
Every time Nadler jumped into a song or sat at the piano, “Stranger,” and the audience’s spirit, soared. Nadler did a fine job choosing the music for his show, and his German and French are impeccable. More examples of Weimar exuberance like Schwabach and Spoliansky’s “The Lavender Song” or Hollaender’s “Oh How I Wish We Were Kids Again” would have gone farther than tales about “Mein Kampf” or statistics about gays in Germany to bring home the ideas Nadler broaches more heavily and boringly. Kurt Weill alone could have provided a commentating repertoire that goes beyond the title song, “My Ship,” “The Bilbao Song,” “J’attends un Navire,” and other songs Nadler opted to include in his show.
When Nadler let music do its job, “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” took on life and became rousingly engaging. I realize he sought to expand the boundaries of cabaret and that he had information he wanted vitally to share, but music is Nadler’s primary metier, and it should have been his primary choice for expressing the important and poignant message he longed to impart. The two moods of Nadler’s show do not neatly blend, and one part, the lecturing, damages the other palpably if not mortally. Believe me, I would love to put my arms around Mark and say, “Job well done.” But I cannot. With all of the effort Nadler took to tell a universal historical tale that was personal on several levels to him, what stays in my head is the haunting melody of “J’attends un Navire,” Ogden Nash’s witty lyrics to “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” the dash and zest of Ralph Roberts and Jack Brooks’s “I May Never Go Home,” the beauty of Weill and Ira Gershwin’s “My Ship,” and the sentiment in Hollaender’s “Ich Weiß Nicht Zu Wem Ich Gehöre” (“I Don’t Know to Whom I Belong”), the song that Nadler adopts as a running theme.
“Musik” is in Nadler’s title, and I believe it is in additional, equally well performed music that the entertainer will find the show he seeks but doesn’t quite achieve in the current version of “I’m a Stranger Here Myself.”
“I’m a Stranger Here Myself” has an elaborate set that scrambles digital orange boxes to reveal photographs and other images that illustrate the time and tenor of all that Nadler discusses. James Morgan, artistic director of the York Theatre, where “Stranger” originated in 2012, lighting designer David Todaro, and production designer Justin West are to be congratulated for a technical achievement that is as handsome and lively as it is versatile and edifying. David Schweitzer deserves much credit for keeping the various visual elements of “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” organized and well-paced. He and Nadler need to rethink the show’s tone and balance.
“I’m a Stranger Here Myself” runs through Saturday, April 12 at the Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut Street, in Philadelphia. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Tickets range from $55 to $39.50 and can be ordered by calling 215-972-1000 or going online to www.princemusictheater.org.