Michael Scott Johnson and Ginger Bess in A Wall Apart
There's something strangely fitting about the space in which <em>A Wall Apart</em> is making its world-premiere, and not just because it places the audience on two sides of the performance space's physical divide. Where big musical productions often place the audience at a physical remove from the actors, the Backstage at the Grand Theater space finds characters close enough to the front row to touch, venturing into seating structure itself. In a story about separation, it's a reminder of the importance of proximity.
Opening in 1961 Berlin, it sets up the tensions of its time through three brothers living in East Berlin: Hans (Darren Ritchie), the oldest who has looked after his siblings since the death of their parents in the war, and who works for the East German police; Mickey (Holden Smith), the youngest brother who has embraced Western culture through his rock and roll band; and middle brother Kurt (Michael Scott Johnson), who's waffling between the practicality of following in Hans's footsteps and the freedom of Mickey's artistic life. Then Mickey's choice is further complicated when he falls in love with Esther (Ginger Bess), a half-American dancer whose allegiance isn't to family in the Eastern half of Berlin.
If the fraternal tug-of-war sounds like an overly literal way to explore the era just before a country was cut in two, it mostly works in a book that never turns Hans into a villain, even as he implements the restrictive policies of the GDR. The performances and voices are uniformly strong, creating the emotional hooks between the characters necessary to pull the narrative through what is ultimately the entire history of Berlin Wall-era Germany. That arc works much better in the first act, which covers mere months in 1961, than in the second act, which races through nearly 30 years. It's harder to hang on to the wall-cross'd love story of Kurt and Esther as time zips by, so it's fortunate that Johnson and Bess are able to seal that link in the time they do share on stage.
While the rock songs by Graham Russell provide a perfect soundtrack for the time period in which the story opens, the tunes aren't instantly catchy, working better at simple storytelling than at inspiring the urge to buy an original cast album. The title song shared by Kurt and Esther offers one of the rare exceptions, a plaintive love song that captures the need to be in the presence of those who matter most to you. It's a sensibility that resonates throughout <em>A Wall Apart</em>, driven home by a production in David Goldstein's scenic design that allows for an emphasis on the distance between characters. For the audience, too, it's a chance to understand the power of human contact, and what it means to be apart.
<em>A Wall Apart</em>
1575 S. State
Through Sept. 7