(Assessments are over. Time to catch up on 2007 reviews...)
How does one describe the works of Michael Kunze and Sylvester Levay so that non-German speaking theatre fans can instantly understand why this duo have the appeal and career longevity that they do? Is it Kunze's poetic German, Levay's sweeping tunes, and the combination that exhibits the best of the genre's 80's grandiose? Perhaps it's their habit of bringing underdog characters to the positions of control audiences crave.
Regardless, Rebecca, based on Daphne du Maurier's 1938 novel, brings much of the duo's formula back to the table: a young girl (referred to as "I") finds herself struggling for identity and control when she marries a rich widower named Maxim de Winter (played by German heartthrob Uwe Kröger) and finds their life together dominated by the shadows of his deceased first wife Rebecca.
Bringing a modern sensibility to this Edwardian tale, Kunze's book turns I's tale from a woman in subservience to one finding the confidence to take control of her life through her lover's misfortunes. In this regard, Rebecca is quite successful. However, it is at the expense of the secondary characters. Key scenes from the novel (such as when I and Beatrice visit Maxim's grandmother) are cut for time, and the character insights present are frequently left out leaving the audience with one-dimensional clutter instead of the human presence necessary to truly bring I's transformation around. Beatrice is merely a concerned sister and too nice to be believable, I's maid is a non-character, and Maxim is so buried in catch phrase ("Why the devil should I care about..." is his default dialogue) that we never get a fully fleshed out set of characters.
A good director would be able to cover up the flaws, but instead the VBW decided to hire renowned opera director Francesca Zambello. While Ms. Zambello is undoubtedly good in her primary sphere, she directs her actors with the broad strokes of opera, not the (still broad but more) refined grace necessary for popular musical theatre. As such, Susan Rigvava-Dumas is wasted in the role of Mrs. Danvers: she has the demanding, imposing presence demanded by her role and a powerhouse voice to match, but the character is again simply given one note. During the scene where she manipulates I into choosing her dress for the costume party, there should be a hint of false kindness, something which breaks I's defenses, but the line is read with the same imposing distance as everything else.
Fortunately, Sylvester Levay delivers with a set of sweeping numbers let down only by how often they're repeated: the title song is used four times vocally (all by Mrs. Danvers) and again multiple times in underscore. Rumour is that new tunes are in the works for the show's September return, but when the audience is paying full price, they expect a certain grade of product. Nevertheless, there are some brilliant songs here including "I Dreamed of Manderley", "Mrs. de Winter is me!", "She never gave up", and yes, the overplayed title number which are sure to stay in your head when you leave the theatre and demand purchase of the cast recording.
The cast also try their best despite the book's flaws and the flat direction: Wietske van Tongeren creates the role she's long deserved as "I", with her voice exuding youth and increasing confidence through the show. Uwe Kröger is reliable as Maxim, though his voice sounded strained when the RZ attended, and he missed the occasional note. Carsten Lepper and his understudy Kai Peterson were both deliciously sleazy as Jack Favell, though the former channeled his Lucheni from Elisabeth a bit too much. As Mrs. Van Hopper, I's original tormentress, Marika Lichter tries hard but comes up short, as her big number ("I'm an American Woman") fails to land the laughs that her characters' grotesque portrayal needs. Likewise, Kerstin Ibald is underused, and while her butch singing voice is appropriate for Beatrice, it doesn't mean the RZ has to like it (he didn't).
Rebecca's minor flaws extend into the design area: While Peter J. Davison (not to be confused with the Dr Who actor) has created a monstrous, claustrophobic yet spacious house and Birgit Hutter bedecks the cast in attractive period costumes, Sven Ortel comes up short as the show's video designer. Rebecca relies heavily upon CG projects for transitional moments, and while some of the sequences are quality, others look years out of date with bad video game camera angles and blatantly computer interpolated animation. Mr. Ortel also has the unfortunate task of combining video (more CG) fire effects with the live flames used towards the piece's conclusion - it looks cheesy from the start and only becomes passable when the video overtakes the live effects.
In the end, Rebecca is a good, but not great musical which brilliantly encapsulates the moodiness of the original novel but fails to cross the border into true genius. Fortunately, nothing about the show as it stands is beyond repair, and with its creators infamous for tinkering and revising their work, may well fulfill its potential for greatness.
Where: Raimund Theatre, Vienna
When: Closed until September. Check the website for reopening details.
How Much: €10-€95 based on day.
Concessions: Students, unemployed, seniors, and members of VBW's MusicalClub can get unsold tickets 30 min. prior to curtain for €11. Standing room is sold at all performances 2 hours in advance for €2.50 and is MOSTLY unobstructed.
RZ Unofficial "Worth Paying": €45 for now, but subject to change with revisions.
RZ Other Notes: Standing room is a bargain - unlike at the Theatre an der Wien, you can see plenty. Despite all the negativity in the review, the RZ enjoyed Rebecca quite a bit, and is looking forward to the reworked Marie Antoinette from Kunze and Levay coming to Germany in 2009.