Review of Schikaneder by Stephen Schwartz at the Raimund Theater in Vienna
Sometimes it pays to be as wide ranging as possible in the quest for the next big thing in musical theatre, and Vereinigte Bühnen Wien in Vienna certainly boasts an impressive history of nurturing and developing original and exciting new musicals. The company's latest hit show is a truly international collaboration between some of the finest creative talent currently working in commercial theatre. Schikaneder brings together British director Trevor Nunn with the composer of Wicked, Godspell and Pippin Stephen Schwartz and the Artistic Director of VBW, book writer Christian Struppeck.
Telling the turbulent origin story of Mozart's people's opera 'The Magic Flute', Schikaneder is a highly impressive and soaringly tuneful musical comedy turned history lesson which brings to the fore an intricate and explosive love affair that simultaneously explores the creation of one opera's most important musical milestones. There's more than a touch of 'Kiss Me Kate' about Nunn's production that places a wonderfully rendered revolving stage within a stage allowing varied perspectives on the backstage drama to be played out, headed by the fiery central coupling of Emmanuel and Eleonore Schikaneder whose love affair and marriage proves to be as turbulent and unforgiving as the opera itself.
Struppeck's book is wide ranging in both scope and research yet it never overpowers his characters, allowing a connection and relationship to build in a taut and carefully plotted manner. Traditional in its musical dramaturgy it doesn't push the boundaries in terms of form, but songs land at all the appropriate moments and it's skilfully constructed to develop both the central love story alongside the driving narrative. Schikaneder's philandering and mistreatment of his wife may paint him in a negative light, yet his theatrical entrepreneurship and creative mind override his more unlikeable qualities, and Eleonore effectively balances his bullish behaviour with some sharp shooting of her own.
The musical's greatest strength is its sweeping melodic score that's full of memorable moments and powerful harmonies, expertly realised by the 32 strong orchestra of the VBW. Written with Mozart firmly in mind Schwartz pays homage to style and tone yet never commits the sin of feeling overly pastiche, instead he blends modern musical theatre structures and harmonies with the sound and range of 18th century music, creating one of his most mature and finely developed scores of recent years. Intricately orchestrated by David Cullen the atmosphere and context is consistently felt throughout and it always feels suitably Viennese and wonderfully rich.
Nunn is well versed in telling musical stories and he keeps the show moving through multiple time frames and narratives, enhanced by some excellent ensemble work from a large and able company. Listening in German and reading along in English you find yourself paying sharper attention to the lyrics than you otherwise usually would do. Some metaphors fall short in translation and don't embellish the picture as well they might, but with some further development in this area these ideas can hopefully develop.
The production is blessed by two of Europe's most celebrated musical theatre stars in the central roles with Mark Seibert and Milica Jovanovic finding the nuance in their central characters each displaying outstanding vocals whilst finding a abrasive chemistry that keeps you rooting for their relationship. It was a delight to see British musical theatre star Katie Hall in the supporting role of Maria, showcasing her crystal clear soprano that soars above the orchestra and blends with a bounteous comedy alongside the charming Tobias Joch as Eleonore's true love Johann Friedel.
A fantastic design and effective mise en scène displays the VBW's commitment to showcasing new musicals in their finest form, together creating a highly accomplished production that continues to release its many delights right through to its conclusion. European musicals with less interesting subject matter and even trickier titles have managed to succeed around the world, and I for one hope that this is only the beginning for this richly appointed and delightfully realised new musical hit.