By Matthew Gurewitsch
BASEL — “Don’t know much about history,” Sam Cooke used to croon. “Don’t know much about geography…” A poor source for better information would be the operetta Die Blume von Hawaii, a gooey paean to a rock in the Pacific the lyricists keep calling “thou South Sea pearl.” Define it as you will, the nebulous descriptor simply does not apply. Let the record show that Ka Le, the southernmost point of the island chain, sits on the 19th northern parallel.
The historic content is equally suspect. American imperialists are scheming to overthrow the Hawaiian kingdom, yes, but where, O, where is that sad, outmaneuvered Queen Lili’uokalani, last of the Hawaiian monarchs? The alternative facts of the story circle around the imaginary Princess Laya, eponymous “flower of Hawaii,” on the fence between duty on the one hand, in the person of a Hawaiian prince, and romance on the other, in the person of an American naval officer.
Originally mounted in Leipzig in 1931, this escapist fluff reached the silver screen two years later, improbably starring the silver-voiced, blonde Hungarian Circe Marta Eggerth as the exotic Laya. Four other film and television adaptations were to follow, the last two in Swedish, with the same stars in both the 1983 and 1992 versions. The latest in a string of now-rare revivals in regional companies across German-speaking Europe opened at Theater Basel on Oct. 1.
A program note for the production assigns Die Blume von Hawaii not to operetta’s silver age, like The Merry Widow (1905), far less to the golden age of Die Fledermaus (1874), but rather to the genre’s “tin age” — a scholar’s term, not mine. In their book and lyrics, Alfred Grünwald, Fritz Löhner-Beda, and Emmerich Földes prove masters of the instant cliché. In the music, the Hungarian-born Paul Abraham shows the facile hand of a born tunesmith but relies to excess on reprise, typically of his most hackneyed ideas. As for authenticity, any nominally Polynesian flourishes boil down to faux-gypsy noodling.
Looking on the bright side, which is to say grasping at straws, a witness to the first-night train wreck might want to single out the atmospheric opening sound collage, which conjured up bells and foghorns. Early on, a palm tree suddenly started to boogie, which was funny, and then collapsed in a heap, and that was funny, too. Seated onstage though sometimes behind a screen, the bandmaster Jürg Henneberg and the dapper Ensemble Phoenix Basel contributed crackerjack instrumentals, mixed to evoke the crackle of His Master’s Voice. (Saxes and flute, please take a bow.)
In a subplot and running shoes, the butterball Bessie Worthington (Katja Jung) tore through her big solo like Hairspray’s Tracy Turnblad unbound. A dead ringer for a German mechanic, Florian Jahr’s Prince Lilo-Taro (Lilo-Taro?) did perfect justice to the bland lounge idiom the character’s music epitomizes. As Captain Reginald Harold Stone, Lilo-Taro’s American competition, Elias Eilinghoff popped out a note or two of stentorian authority. There was a laugh to be had from the boys of the chorus storming on in grass skirts over white hot pants, charcoal socks, black oxfords, and the white duck caps variously known in the navy (I’m told) either as dog dishes or Dixie Cups.
As the director Frank Hilbrich has suggested at some length in an interview, the story line of Die Blume von Hawaii, such as it is, exists mostly as a rack to hang the songs on. That said, he failed to tell the story. A chorus of sixteen was on hand to burn calories in aerobic production numbers, but Kinsun Chan’s simplistic steps and floor patterns never added up to dances. In book scenes, the cast parked or rattled around like unacquainted passengers stranded between flights, at the mercy of air-traffic control. Who, one kept wondering, is who? And what is it anyone wants?
Except for tattoos on the face and neck of the Hawaiian elder Kaluna (Kaluna?), the Honolulu locals in the show look, dress, and act exactly like the paleface invaders whom hostile natives know as haoles. Representing the interior of a disused Hawaiian palace (a Hawaiian palace?), Volker Thiele’s set consists of a curved double staircase hugging the shell of what might be the ballroom of some deserted Hyatt, festooned with dead vines the cast slowly stripped away over the span of nearly three interminable hours. The costumes, designed by Gabriele Rupprecht, ran from flapper fringe and oversize, tacky fake lei to off-the-rack business suits here and uniforms there.
Principals as yet unmentioned would include the grim, gaunt, boneless Vincent Glander, slithering in silver sequins as the jazz sensation Jim Boy. Next: Mario Fuchs as the two-faced American governor Lloyd Harrison, who late in the game goes suddenly berserk, marching and saluting in place like Wozzeck gone off the rails. In the starring role of Laya, who doubles incognito (don’t ask) as a French entertainer, Pia Händler danced with two left feet and sang in keys all her own but to her credit knew her lines and the blocking.
For reasons soon to become apparent, a few words are in order on Handel’s Alcina, a contrasting island fantasy presented on the same stage the following evening. In the pit, the Baroque specialist Andrea Marcon and his period ensemble La Cetra cooked up no end of enchantment. In the title role of the sorceress, Nicole Heaston offered a glamorous, tragicomic diva turn. As her no-longer willing boy toy Ruggero, Vince Yi dazzled in allegro and pierced the heart in adagio, nowhere more than in “Verdi prati,” that time-stopping elegy on the fragility of Nature’s beauty.
In Lydia Steier’s uneven but mostly captivating production, movie allusions abound. So how surprising should it have been, among Carmen Miranda and Marx Bros. lookalikes, to spot odds and ends from the previous evening’s entertainment: grass skirts all over the place, another double staircase going nowhere, and, best of all, black shoes and socks, this time secured with garters.
After nearly three decades as an international cultural commentator working from New York, Matthew Gurewitsch relocated in Maui to begin a new chapter. For an archive of his work past and present, please visit beyondcriticism.com.