Tonight: Lola Blau, a ‘big little’ musical in Europe, has U.S. debut at La MaMa

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Anna Kramer (singer) and Joe Volker(pianist) in Tonight with Lola Blau. Photo by Petra van Vliet (Holland).
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Tonight: Lolo Blau. Anna Kramer (foreground), Joe Volker (behind). Photo by Iba Kljuce.
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The show was actually written in 1971 by Georg Kreisler, a virtuoso composer, satirist, pianist and musical wit whose songs include “Please Shoot Your Husband,” “My Psychoanalyst Is an Idiot” and “Two Old Aunts Dance the Tango.” Many of his songs are just as popular with today’s generation as they were 50 years ago when he first wrote them. His other plays include “Der Tote Play” (1974), “Aufstand der Schmetterlinge, Der 2000” and “Adam Schaf hat Angst” (2002). His books include “Wenn ihr Lachen wollt” (When You Want To Laugh), “Ernste Bedenken – Lieder zu Zeit” and “Ist Wien Uberflussig” (Is Vienna Superfluous?). Critics have characterized “Tonight: Lola Blau” as a brilliant tour de force for any actress who can bring it off.

The musical was first performed in the Kleines Theater der Josefstadt in Vienna and ended after a run of 175 sold-out performances. Its early success was later repeated in Berlin, Hamburg and Israel. It continues to fascinate European audiences with its ruthless view of the Holocaust and its legacy on subsequent generations. It has been widely produced, but never before in the U.S. It was adapted into English in 1993 by Don White, an English translator and advertising man, who had co-founded Opera Rara in 1970 and subsequently won laurels for his translations of Donizetti’s “Le Convenienze Teatrali,” Poniatowski’s “Au Travers du Mur” and Offenbach’s “Robinson Crusoe,” among others. His version of “Robinson Crusoe” was acclaimed by Rodney Milnes in Opera Magazine as “setting new standards in the translation of comic opera.” White’s English adaptation has been performed in England and Ireland.

The musical opens with Lola Blau as a Jewish singer trying to find work in Nazi-occupied Vienna. Escaping to the United States, she is obliged to sing in seedy nightclubs before achieving fame. After the war, she returns, with some trepidation, to Vienna. Her story is told in a nearly continuous flow of Kurt Weill-style numbers, each cleverly evoking a mood, a period or environment in wickedly accurate parody and pastiche. In Lola’s return concert, she slyly condemns all those who failed to notice the disappearance of six million Jews and confronts the audience with its prejudices. She dares the audience to share Kreisler’s disgust at Austria’s posing as a victim of Nazism rather than as a collaborator.

Lola’s pride at having survived–and her guilt at having left Europe–are neatly and poignantly captured in the play, which juxtaposes images of war with snippets of contemporaneous American culture, like “The Good Ship Lollypop” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” Her return to Vienna turns the city inside out, with brilliant songs about collaborators (“Frau Schmidt), the entrenched plutocrat impresarios (“Herr Director”) and a sardonic sendup of “Thank God for Hollywood” sung to Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C major.

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The composer Georg Kreisler. Photo by Stefan Malzkorn.

The show’s popularity on the continent is partly explained by Europe’s continuing obsession with the Holocaust. British audiences have also found it marvelously illuminating. Reviewing a 1995 production with East German actress Esther Zsieschow at The Old Red Lion, Islington (London), critic Graham Hassell wrote in “What’s On” that the piece found an “appreciative audience, who like me, discovered new and sad facts about post war anti-Semitism and denial or ignorance of the Holocaust in Austria and the UK. It is perhaps a shame that few or none of them were of the generation of young people here in the UK that is credited with knowing nothing about the Holocaust or the significance of Auschwitz. And that’s despite current emphasis on Holocaust studies in schools, the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the institution of National Holocaust Memorial Day.”

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Anna Kramer as Lola Blau, performing a yiddish song, Sie is a herrliches Woib (She’s a beautiful girl). Photo by Ibo Kljuce.

There are also reverberations of Lola’s story in the life of Dick Top’s wife and close collaborator, Irene Hulst. Her mother, being Jewish, was only able to get a visa to Australia (although Irene’s uncles and aunts manage to emigrate to the U.S. and settled in Massachusetts). On the boat to Melbourne, she met and fell in love with a Dutch man, married him by proxy in Indonesia, and returned to join him in Amsterdam only 15 days before the fighting broke out. She lived with him in Amsterdam, in hiding, throughout most of the war. “People of our generation owe our lives to the Americans and Canadians,” Irene says. She adds that she and Dick are grateful and proud to present this play in New York, especially this year, which is the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s voyage.

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Anna Kramer in Tonight with Lolo Blau. Photo by Petra van Vliet (Holland).

Anna Kramer (Lola Blau) is a bilingual musical theater actress and solo artist who lives in Germany. Lola Blau is becoming her “signature” part after productions at international theater festivals in Amsterdam, Aruba and Ivory Coast. She has performed leads in musicals including “The Rocky Horror Show,” “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” and “Little Shop of Horrors.” A comedienne, singer and songwriter, she created a musical, “Die Twotones,” for herself in Mannheim and has toured it throughout Germany. She has been a lead singer and host on cruise ship shows (Kuba, Mexiko, Carrebean) and in Variete. In addition to her solo turns in “Die Twotones” and “Tonight: Lola Blau,” she has also played the unforgettable French chansonniere Edith Piaf. She was trained in both Germany and New York, studying at the Universities of Munster and Heidelberg and also in New York at the Lee Strasberg Institute and the Ward Acting Studio (Meisner technique). She trained in singing at SUNY Purchase and cabaret at the Singers’ Forum in New York. She has also studied voice with Philippo Di Stefano (NYC) and Mary Ann Seibel (Mannheim). (www.annakraemer.de)

Joe Volker (musical director and pianist) has played and directed numerous musicals in Germany, Italy, and the UK, including “Evita,” “Rat Pack” and “Cabaret.” He works steadily with the “creme de la creme” of the German theater scene. His CD productions are prolific and he is a well-known musical arranger in Germany. He’s also much sought-after sideman for pop and jazz shows as well as classical concerts and works as a character actor in dramatic plays. “Tonight: Lola Blau” shows him off as both a musician and an actor.

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Joe Volker(musical director), Anna Kramer, Dick Top (director) and Irene Hulst, his wife, in front of the Players Club, New York, March 2008. Photo by Anne Westrich.

Director Dick Top had appeared at La MaMa in the 1970s. He caught La MaMa’s attention to this play with an informal presentation last March at the Player’s Club, which led to the invitation for this production.

Performances are March 13 to 22, 2009 at La Mama E.T.C.’s second-floor Club, 74A East Fourth Street Manhattan. The performance schedule is Fridays and Saturdays at 10:00 PM and Sundays at 5:30 PM. Tickets are $15/tdf. The box office number is (212) 475-7710; online ticketing is available at www.lamama.org.