Maddie Shea Baldwin and Jordan Bondurant in ‘A Wall Apart.’ (Photo: Mihael Schoenfeld via The Broadway Blog.)
By Matthew Wexler
There’s been a lot of talk lately about walls. In particular, the wall that President Trump still intends on building between the U.S. and Mexico, the political wall that now keeps transgender people from serving in the military, and the many walls among our politicians that have crippled our healthcare system. But perhaps the most symbolic and soul-crushing wall in modern history is the one that divided East and West Berlin between 1961 and 1989. This division between the Soviets and Allied Forces would devastatingly impact thousands of Germans throughout nearly three decades and is the subject for the new musical A Wall Apart, one of the most anticipated shows of this year’s New York Musical Festival.
With a book by Sam Goldstein and Craig Clyde and score by Lord Graham Russell (of Air Supply fame), the musical attempts to look a how the Berlin wall impacts a family of three brothers. Hans (Darren Ritchie), the eldest, feels obligated to take care of his younger brothers after their parents have been murdered; Kurt (Jordan Bondurant), the middle brother, is caught between his family obligations and his new-found love interest Esther (Maddie Shea Baldwin), who lives in West Berlin; and Mickey (Josh Tolle), the youngest of the three and a struggling musician whose career lies in the west but whose pregnant young bride, Suzanne (Emily Behny) keeps him tied to his family roots. And then there’s Tante (Leslie Becker), their well-worn aunt who has survived World War II and is the family’s matriarch.
A Wall Apart’s premise has all the makings for a terrific musical: a dramatic setting and high stakes for its lead characters, but the creative team’s realization of the story is riddled with holes and glaring onstage miscalculations. Director and choreographer Keith Andrews puts his cast (many of whom have Broadway and national tour credits) through a ringer of poorly staged scenes and cliché choreography that feels more like a show choir than tumultuous Berlin. He’s not helped by David Goldstein’s set, which includes ineffective video projections and mobile wood planks, I assume, meant to look like pieces of the wall but, instead, appear as though the ensemble has raided Home Depot. Casting is also an issue with a chorus of 20-somethings that makes you wonder if the authors’ idea of mid-century Berlin is Logan’s Run.
Goldstein and Clyde’s clunky book is riddled with History.com exposition in the first 20 minutes in spite of a powerful opening number, “Our City.” Russell’s score, infused with 60s era rock melodies, pop ballads, and terrific arrangements by Jonathan Ivie, comes closest to portraying an honest snapshot of a family and a city in turmoil, but it’s still very much in the developmental stage and could use fine-tuning to allow the music to propel the story forward.
The plot jumps over decades midway through Act II, with Mickey now taking over the role of narrator and speaking directly to the audience in a jarring convention. The young principal actors, giving it the old college try, are now supposed to be in their late 40s, and the big 11 o’clock number is given to a character that has never previously appeared.
In spite of my misgivings and the show’s structural problems, there is something at the core of A Wall Apart that rings true. In the program notes, the authors state, “Perhaps we can make the legacy of the Berlin Wall one of life rather than violence. Hope rather than despair. Love rather than hate.” Those are ambitious goals, let alone for a musical. But when walls come down, anything is possible.
A Wall Apart
New York Musical Festival
Acorn Theatre at Theater Row
Through July 30
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his writing at wexlerwrites.com.