By Roy Sander
"I'm a Stranger Here Myself"
Over the years, singer-pianist Mark Nadler has devised and performed several exceptional, even unforgettable shows: his evening about Russian composers, his tribute to Ira Gershwin, his program of songs of the 1920s—as well as duo shows he co-developed with KT Sullivan: the songs of Irving Berlin, and their Gershwin evening, which enjoyed an off-Broadway run. Each of these shows was distinguished by a number of qualities: the high caliber of Nadler's song interpretations; his perceptive analysis of his subject—sometimes discussing the writer's aesthetic, other times putting the material in historical or cultural perspective; and by the breadth of his vision—fresh and creative, making the evening a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. His current offering at 54 Below, "I'm a Stranger Here Myself," has all of these qualities—plus something more, something that puts it in a class of its own. I don't have the slightest hesitation in labeling this the best show I have ever seen Mark Nadler give.
His subject here is the Weimar Republic—the period in Germany beginning shortly after the end of World War I and ending with Hitler's rise to power—the first democratically elected parliamentary government Germany ever had, a period of "unparalleled freedom." However, he doesn't limit his musical selections or his narration to those fourteen years: the songs date from as recently as the 1960s, he tells us of things that transpired under National Socialism, and he talks about late 20th Century Greenwich Village. But so skillful is he at crafting the show that all of the elements are integrated seamlessly.
Actually, Nadler is more than merely skillful: the show is slyly, almost subversively constructed. It begins with him entering through the house, madly cheerful and spirited. His opening number includes the rousing "I May Never Go Home Anymore" (Ralph Arthur Roberts, Jack Brooks) and ends with Nadler grinning broadly at us. Later he regales us with "Schickelgruber" (Kurt Weill, Howard Dietz), a smart, pointed ditty that pokes fun at Hitler; with "Oh, Just Suppose" (Friedrich Hollaender, Jeremy Lawrence), he plays flirtatiously with members of the audience. He is outrageous and very funny; we are entertained, we laugh. But Nadler has an overarching objective, and as the show unfolds, we are drawn ever closer to the center of his web. Along the way we are touched and we are moved, but it's not until the very end that we get the full emotional impact of the evening and grasp the scope and depth of what we've witnessed. The show packs an emotional wallop—and that is what sets it apart from his other offerings.
The musical numbers are all masterful. Nadler's rendition of "The Bilbao Song" (Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, Michael Feingold) conveys more feeling, more sense of nostalgia for a fondly but imperfectly remembered past than perhaps any other I've come across since first hearing it sung many years ago by the incandescent Martha Schlamme. He segues from "Je ne t'aime pas" (Weill, Maurice Magre) to Weill and Ogden Nash's "I'm a Stranger Here Myself," the mood established by the first song informing and enriching his interpretation of the second. He delivers an extraordinary reading of the beautiful "J'attends un navire" (Weill, Jacques Deval), communicating focused determination magnificently. His quiet rendition of "La Bohème" (Charles Aznavour, Jacques Plante, Herbert Kretzmer" is the most affecting I've ever heard. Kudos, too, to William Schimmel on accordion and Christine Kwak on Violin for their invaluable contribution.
The events taking place on the world stage when Germany and the subjugated countries were under the boot of the Third Reich were cataclysmic. Nadler examines the impact on people's lives mainly by focusing on the plight of specific individuals—musicians as well as people from other walks of life. (In art, personalizing grand-scale calamities is the most effective, the most potent way of conveying them.) For example, in discussing the treatment of homosexuals in Germany, Nadler tells about songwriter Kurt Schwabach. In 1920, Schwabach, who would flee Germany in 1935, collaborated with Mischa Spoliansky to write "The Lavender Song," regarded as one of the earliest gay anthems. Nadler sings the Jeremy Lawrence English translation, which includes the trenchant line "they march in lockstep, we prefer to dance." Remarkable for 1920, it remains a powerful song, and Nadler gives it a powerful performance.
I am usually wary of wildly extravagant praise. (I bristle each time I hear yet another show characterized as "must-see.") But I won't let fear of being accused of hyperbole stop me from saying what I believe—something I've never before said about a cabaret show: "I'm a Stranger Here Myself" is a work of genius.