It’s a rare thing when a work of art makes me sit back and say, “Wow,” rarer still when it’s something Holocaust-related. The sheer volume of art that has been produced around the catastrophic events of WWII is overwhelming; but more than that, artists have a tendency to allow their emotions to rule unchecked, sure that the audience will forgive their indulgence; after all, it’s the Holocaust.
All this is to say that when Alexis Fishman’s Der Gelbe Stern (“The Yellow Star”) knocked me over sideways on Thursday afternoon at the New York Musical Theater Festival, I was as excited to be excited as I was charmed, thrilled, moved, and amused by her miraculous turn as Erika Stern, a fictional Weimar cabaret star performing for the last time in 1933 before a jealous, Nazi ex-lover shuts down her show. A mixture of original songs, stand-up comedy, and monologue, the show sparkles every bit as much as Fraulein Stern’s earrings under the spotlight.
For starters, Ms. Fishman, an Australian by birth, manages to convey the deep charisma crucial to pulling off her role as Berlin’s biggest cabaret star. She is laugh-out-loud funny with her Marlene Dietrich accent and her songs about the perfect boyfriend, Attila the Hun. She’s incredibly raunchy, too, in a way that conveys her delight with sex, rather than a two-dimensional performance of sexiness designed to appeal to the audience’s gaze. It’s a post-modern delight rather than a modernist one, but hey, I was into it! I only wished she had done something sexy with the Nazi flag; the forbiddenness of the swastika has, inadvertently, lent it an erotic quality that Fishman seems to know but not actualize. She is the person to do it.
There is real chemistry between Erika and her gay, closeted pianist, Otto, which makes for great fun. I was also reminded of the true pleasure one gets from watching a performer in a show they have themselves written; one feels the intelligence behind the work as a genuine part of the performance, rather than a performance of genuineness.
But the real brilliance of Der Gelbe Stern lies in Fishman’s masterful balancing of sentiment and irony. Just when you’re ready to relax into giggles, she elicits tears, and just when you’re ready to indulge those tears, she cracks the whip of her wit, as if to say, “Snap out of it!” It’s a truly masterful performance. Catch one of her two final shows on Monday, July 21. (Tickets here.)
Image credit: Hunter Canning