London doesn‘t only see smash hit musicals, Broadway successes and musical world premieres. It also has a very lively and varied Off-West End scene. These fringe productions captivate audiences with complex storylines and sophisticated music. Quite often they are real musical diamonds.
The Bridewell Theatre, the Southwark Playhouse vault and the Arcola Theatre are popular venues for such pieces. The average West End visitor would never find these places, but the unique arrangement of the seats around the small stages makes them well worth a visit.
Musicals by Alexander S. Bermange have already been presented in some of these intimate spaces, and on 7th September 2012 the London premiere of his piece „Thirteen Days“ took place at the Arcola Theatre Tent.
The historical framework is the 1962 Cuban missile crisis during which the actions of three heads of state (USA, Cuba, USSR) averted a nuclear war. But Alexander Bermange didn‘t just transfer the story into song – he added a love story involving three people to this dramatic backdrop: the Cuban Valentina, engaged to Russian missile engineer Andrei, falls in love with American spy Jim. Jim falls for her too, until the jealous Andrei unveils his true intention. Valentina is in despair: how can she love a man who betrayed her father? Can she marry someone who does not care about the fate of her country when America and Russia go to war?
In the end, feeling forced by the traditions and mindset of her country, she decides against love beyond borders. This very rational decision goes against her real emotions but seems comprehensible under the circumstances. But
one question remains: wouldn‘t there have been a chance for Valentina and Jim?
Bermange develops the story for the 15-strong cast by means of 27 very varied songs. Ballads giving goosebumps lead to energetic uptempo songs, different stylistic elements supporting the different national backgrounds – swinging Cuban, staccato Russian, trendy American. Bermange delivers a variety as rarely before.
Even the patter which Bermange typically uses in his comedy songs is integrated into „Thirteen Days“. In several duets they are used in reflective contrapuntal passages. These pacy sequences prove to be a nice challenge for the singers.
In Act One, the story of Valentina, Andrei and Jim develops very quickly. While Valentina and Andrei‘s engagement is the focus at the beginning („Unite“ makes you want to dance), the threat of war posed by the Russians looms ever nearer (the oppressively intense „Missiles“).
The reunion and rediscovered affection between Valentina and Jim is musically depicted in some beautiful ballads („The Chapel“, „Anyone but you“). In particular Valentina‘s emotional roller coaster, Jim‘s true feelings, and his turning away from his spying mission, as well as Andrei‘s jealousy, are brilliantly entangled.
In parallel, Kennedy addresses his well-known speech to his country (the lightly but effectively used video proejctions make this scene even more intense).
„Long Live Tomorrow“ is a well-placed finale to the first act. The entire ensemble is split into three national groups, led by their presidents and the three lovers. Together they express their fear of the possible war. Both the musical and choreographic choices in this number are excellent.
Act Two follows the negotiations of Kennedy and Khrushchev. The difficult decisions, their little room for negotiation, and the risks the presidents of the two superpowers have to face, are presented in solos in which one of them stands in the other‘s shadow. The staging is perfect and underlines the different levels of power.
But Valentina‘s final decision and Jim and Andrei’s hurt find their space in the second half too.
„Thirteen Days“ ends with a happy ending for the world, which after these days scraped past a nuclear war as never before. But it also shows the tragedy of three young people who sacrifice their love for national pride. They prefer being unhappy in the right country to being happily in love with a possible public enemy.
For the first time a Bermange piece isn’t simply a „feel-good show“, yet still leaves you humming some lovely tunes, and moreover is fully thought-provoking, not just because of the historical background of the musical but also because of all of the „what if…?“ scenarios for Valentina, Jim and Andrei that spring to your mind.
That the audience feels so close to the three lovers is not just down to Matthew Gould‘s staging. Valentina, Jim and Andrei are the lovely „people next door“ you want to become friends with. The casting of these parts could not have been easy, but Melissa Moore as Valentina, Grant Neal as Jim and Nadim Naaman as Andrei simultanesouly give their parts softness and strength and they convey their emotions in a very genuine way.
The creative team also had a lucky hand in the casting of the three nations‘ presidents Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro: Steven Sparling is a very statesmanlike and competent Kennedy, Anthony Cable‘s Khrushchev is decisive and threatening, and last but not least Richard de Winter completes the political trio as the egocentric Castro.
The nine additional cast members cover all the parts on the American, Cuban and Russian sides. Small costume changes and different facial or physical gestures denote their specific national characteristics.
Bermange‘s compositions consist of soft, soulful melodies as well as stronger, more powerful sounds. All six leading actors adjust their voices perfectly to them. Sometimes the four band members (with Alexander Bermange conducting at the piano) give the singers a real challenge to compete without microphones. But generally speaking – and particularly in the case of the huge ensemble songs – it works. For another run I would recommend allowing at least the solists to use mics to ensure that all those lovely gentler tunes can be properly heard.
The Arcola Theatre Tent offers the perfect framework for the historical and emotional depth of such a piece. The audience surrounds the stage on three sides. As a backdrop, and on the floor, there are white screens on which Ben Rogers‘ projections produce a very vivid effect.
One wishes for a wider audience for musicals that are written with so much sensitivity as „Thirteen Days“. Shows offering thematic cross references to dramatic pieces such as „Miss Saigon“ that are based on national differences do not pop up every day. But Alexander Bermange is miles away from copying existing material. With his book and melodies for „Thirteen Days“ he demonstrates a very sensitive approach to this complex topic.
Actors: Melissa Moore, Nadim Naaman, Grant Neal
Book, Music & Lyrics: Alexander S. Bermange
Photos: Francis Loney