Before entering the downstairs theater at SoHo’s HERE Arts Center, an educational pop-up exhibition offers historical information about the Nazi persecution and attempted annihilation of LGBTQ+ people during Hitler’s Third Reich, when an estimated 50,000 were convicted of the “crime of homosexuality,” transported to concentration camps, tortured, and executed for being who they are and loving whom they love. It also considers the shocking rise in discrimination, vitriol, and hate crimes directed towards the community in America and around the world today. It’s a devastating reminder of man’s inhumanity to man and a momentous warning that “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
All that served as the motivation for LA-based writer and performer Alan Palmer’s Chanteuse: A Survival Musical, a mostly sung-through personal story of the attempt of one gay man in 1933 Berlin to evade arrest, internment, and death at the hands of the Nazis, presented by Palmer Productions and playing a limited engagement at HERE. The intimate solo show, directed by Dorothy Danner, with music by David Legg and book and lyrics by Palmer, opens with a foreboding hint at what’s to come, as the character Werner takes the stage in a striped prisoner’s uniform, before a black-and-white projection of electrified barbed wire atop a confinement wall.
He then recounts key moments of his life’s journey in words and song, from his childhood and boarding school memories, in England, of being “different” from the other kids, to his decision to move to Berlin, where he felt euphoric, connected, and accepted by kindred spirits in the flourishing gay clubs, began his career as a cabaret artist, and met, fell in love, and moved in with his partner Jakob. But that “happy ending” didn’t last long, as the Nazis gained power and control, began raids and arrests at the nightclubs and homes of those suspected of same-sex relationships, and took Jakob away to a place unknown. To avoid being captured, Werner at first hid out, then assumed the identity of his late landlady Frau Margot Friedrich, to whom he bore a resemblance, and became the eponymous female chanteuse, until a fateful meeting threatened his hope for survival.
Backed by a four-piece orchestra (Jon Wheelock on bass, Chris Sclafani on tenor sax, and Joe Lubman on percussion, and conductor Kim Fox on piano), Palmer, capturing the authentic stylings of the ‘30s, sings, dances, moves around the stage, and interacts with the audience, while changing accents and costumes, and inserting bits of gallows humor into Werner’s cabaret act, to suit the times and events of the narrative. He also manifests a full range of emotions as his situation, and that of Berlin, shifts from exuberantly entertaining to inconceivably horrifying under the command of Hitler, and he experiences first-hand the brutal impact of vicious homophobia and callous dehumanization, reducing people to symbols (a Star of David for the Jews, a pink triangle for him) and numbers (of the concentration camp victims, most of whom were shot to death or mass-murdered in the gas chambers).
Period-style costumes by Kathy Price, and a set by Jessa Orr, with old-fashioned suitcases, trunks, a vintage microphone and gramophone, wooden-slat walls and projections of real-life photographs from the era evoke the different locales, and dramatic lighting by Joe Doran enhances the moods of the incidents recounted.
Chanteuse is a profoundly disturbing, impactful, and personal view of one of the darkest times in human history – a time that must always be remembered, no matter how painful, to ensure that it never happens again. Kudos to Alan Palmer for keeping those memories of the LGBTQ+ community alive and resonating now.
Running Time: Approximately 60 minutes, without intermission.