Love’s boundaries in 1920s and 30s Berlin

Anthony Rodgers | KC

The Emcee and the ChorusTime travel is no easy task—perhaps even impossible!—but the Heartland Men’s Chorus went back to pre-WWII Berlin, performing various numbers from the period and Cabaret and taking the audience of the Folly Theater with them. The group also gave the regional premiere of For a Look or a Touch by Jake Heggie, featuring guests baritone Morgan Smith and actor Kip Niven for a journey through—and across—time.

Beginning with “Wilkommen” from Cabaret, the stage was set for a night of song and dance highlighting the musical styles of the 1920s and frivolity of all in the hopping jazz clubs in Berlin. Masterfully arranged by Eric Lane Barnes, numbers included the spectacular Yiddish tune “Bei Mir bist Du schoen,” Weill-Brecht collaborations such as “Bilbao Song” and “Mack the Knife,” and the Cole Porter hits “Love for Sale/What Is This Thing Called Love?” A group of dancers featured in various numbers throughout the act were highly entertaining if not the most trained in this art. Wilson L. Allen acted as emcee for the production, narrating the storyline and providing comedic commentary on the performers, all with an exceptional singing voice, gender-blurring appearance, and unobtrusive German accent. A chamber orchestra of cabaret-like instrumentation was light and well balanced within themselves and with the large chorus. Overall, the vocal ensemble was musically engaged and blended sweetly, particularly when the parts harmonically divided, although there were moments in which they felt reluctant to enter creating a slight distraction from the arrangement. The standout group of soloists from the night were featured as characters in “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” notable for their humorously large props. Sounding like a collegiate fight-song, the gay anthem “The Lavender Song” was full-voiced, rousing, and still inspiring. The whole act was a show from beginning to end, flowing smoothly and transporting the Folly audience to the raucous intimacy of the cabaret.

Although times were as fun as the show’s first act, a new German regime in the 1930s changed the attitude toward homosexuality, reinforcing it as criminal love, and so the second half of the evening’s performance took a similar turn to the serious. Jake Heggie’s one-act opera For a Look or a Touch sets the tale of two young, gay lovers that were separated by death but reunited on the stage by their own words. Stirred from his sleep, Gad Beck (Kip Niven) sees the ghost of his former lover, Manfred Lewin (Morgan Smith), and discusses the struggles they both faced in and out of the Nazi concentration camps. Taken from the journals of Manfred and an interview with Gad from the 2000 documentary Paragraph 175, the words of the men are combined into a dialogue that is as cathartic for the audience as it is for those on stage.

Guets artists Morgan Smith and Kip NivenNiven was dynamic as Gad, delivering the spoken memories with conviction and even offering a few moments of comedic relief. Smith’s velvety voice was malleable, comfortable in both operatic and jazz settings, although some technical issues existed with almost constant feedback from his microphone, and together, their chemistry was organic in juxtaposing the torment of the concentration camps with the torture of surviving with pain and guilt. Similarly changing styles with ease, the chamber orchestra featured a group of talented soloists Stephen Plante danced beautifully during the recollection of “The Story of Joe” and violently demonstrated a conflict of obedience and rebellion within the character tormented by the camp guards. Although there were some moments of hesitancy, particularly with the group singled out to dance and flirt with Smith during “Golden Years,” the chorus provided a wonderful background both visually—many wearing the striped uniforms of the camp with the pink triangle of marked homosexuality—and musically, supporting the solo lines and blending well with an evocative energy.

Combining the eccentric with the somber, HMC still made the effort to not add extra commentary on a modern society with their presentation of the two contrasting adventures. And with such great charisma and uniqueness, it’s no wonder that the Folly Theater was full for their spring concert, which left us with the reminder to just have fun, because life really is a cabaret.

Heartland Men’s Chorus
Falling in Love Again
Saturday, March 23, 2013 (Reviewed)
Sunday, March 24, 2013
Folly Theater
300 W. 12 St., Kansas City, MO
For more information, visit