Review: HELL’S FURY, The Hollywood Songbook (Luminato)

by Lynn on June 25, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Harbourfront Centre Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Devised and directed by Tim Albery

Production designed by Michael Levine

Costumes designed by Michelle Tracey

Projection designs by Cameron Davis

Lighting by Thomas C. Hase

Pianist, Serouj Kradjian

Cast: Russell Braun

Director Tim Albery has created Hell’s Fury, The Hollywood Songbook  illuminating the life and work of Hanns Eisler noted German composer. Eisler worked closely with Bertolt Brecht composing music for his plays. Because Eisler was Jewish he was hounded out of Nazi Germany and went to Hollywood to compose music for films, some of the films were less than stellar. He was then forced to leave the United States because of his political beliefs and he was being interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was betrayed by his sister Ruth Fischer. He fled to East German where he composed, among other things, the National Anthem and was honoured with a stamp, but times were tough there too.

The songs that have been selected are vivid and depict a life fraught with despair and longing. They are full of emotion, observation and humility.

For some reason we are in a recording studio. There is a grand piano, a standing microphone, a recording booth and a clock on the wall. There is a small round container on the piano with pencils I guess (I was sitting at the back) and a stick with a small flag on it. On the flag was a swastika. That caught my attention. I assume we are in Nazi Germany.

Hanns Eisler (Russell Braun in fine, beautiful voice) enters wearing an overcoat over a brown three piece suit and a brown hat. He takes off the hat and drops it on the grand piano and hangs up his overcoat on a hook stage right. Then Serouj Kradjian (the accompanist) enters and takes the hat off the piano and hangs it up on another hook. He sits at the piano, sees the flag with the swastika and bunches it up and tosses it in the garbage. He begins playing and Russell Braun as Eisler begins singing. He lies on the floor as if he is in a bed in a hotel. Locations are indicated with signs (“bar”) or references in the songs. A case of wine appears and both Eisler and Kradjian, the accompanist have a glass and swig from it.

At one point Eisler sits on the end of the piano bench with Kradjian behind him. While Eisler sings or talks Kradjian leans over past Eisler to take the wine glass on the piano and drink deeply. I roll my eyes because this movement pulls focus from Eisler. Kradjian does it a few times. Then I get it. These two ‘characters’ are alter-egos of each other. Both men wear the same glasses and blown suit. I recall that they don’t acknowledge each other when they first enter. There is nothing in the program that notes that they are alter egos of one another. We have to pick that up on our own. Why, is the question? Why are they alter egos of each other? What purpose is served?

While I found Russell Braun’s singing to be superb and his acting is convincing and Serouj Kradjian’s playing to be excellent and attentive, so much of this production is unsatisfying because of Tim Albery’s fussy, obtrusive direction or his unclear storytelling.

Why are we in a recording studio, pristine and perfect though it is in Michael Levine’s design? Eisler spends lots of time going from location to location (those signs indicated the places) but he’s in this recording studio for some reason.

Too often projections upstage the singing. A small photo of Stalin grows larger and larger in a projection that overtakes Russell Braun altogether. Mystifying and annoying.

Where are we in the first scene if there is that flag with the swastika in that little round container?

Too many questions. Loved the singing but the production is a self-indulgent exercise by a fussy, self-serving director.

Played at Luminato and closed June 23.

Presented in partnership with Soundstreams, Luminato and Pinkhouse Productions with Opera North, UK.

Began: June 19, 2019.

Closed: June 23, 2019.

Running Time: 70 minutes,

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