Do I hear a waltz?

City of Dreams

Book and lyrics by David Zellnik
Music and musical direction by Joseph Zellnik
Direction by Michael Alltop
Choreography by Janet Bogardus
Costume design by Randall E. Klein
Midtown International Theatre Festival
Raw Space Theatre L
529 W. 42nd St. (279-4200/
Equity showcase (closes August 1)
Review by Miranda Lundskaer-Nielsen

A frustrated Crown Prince, battling a disciplinarian father; takes a long-term mistress and speaks out on public issues; his neglected Princess is trapped in a loveless marriage; a monarch places duty and tradition before family.

No, this is not Buckingham Palace -- The Musical. City of Dreams deals with a different set of dysfunctional royals, namely the Hapsburgs, and the true events surrounding Crown Prince Rudolf of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. If his name is unfamiliar that’s because he never actually took office, having angered his family with his liberal progressive ideas and then embarrassed them further by committing suicide.

Had this show simply retold his story, it would have made a perfect operetta, or even opera, featuring royalty and star-crossed lovers in a romantic setting. But those who have seen one musical melodrama too many can breathe easy. For while the story of Rudolf (a suitably edgy Ben Nordstrom)’s disenchantment and rebellion forms the skeleton of this show, the flesh and bones are the evocation of Vienna as a city divided -- the cosmopolitan city of waltzes and café society ruled over by the political dinosaur Emperor Franz Josef (D. Michael Berkowitz). What emerges is an intelligent, insightful, and thoroughly engaging piece of musical theatre, here given a fluid and detailed production by director Michael Alltop, with convincing period costumes (Randall E. Klein), simple but effective sets (Mark Fitzgibbons) and lighting (Hideaki Tsutsui) and a universally excellent cast (how often do you see one of those?).

In adapting these real-life events, book writer and lyricist David Zellnik avoids simplistic morality or dull reportage in favor of intelligent characters, well-crafted dialogue and multiple viewpoints. Thus the audience is caught up in the youthful certainty and enthusiasm of the young model who captivates the Prince (a single-minded Megan McGinnis), but can also be touched by the plight of the Princess (a moving, forceful Sharron Bower); it can admire the joie de vivre of the globetrotting empress (the effervescent Kristin Griffith) but also come to see her behavior as irresponsible; it can share in the Prince’s dreams but regret his reckless approach.

The real-life material allows Zellnik certain ironic touches. To secure the Hapsburg dynasty, the emperor names as his successor Archduke Ferdinand (whose assassination in 1914 was to end the empire and trigger WW1); meanwhile the educated but voiceless café society is represented by the struggling artist Gustav Klimt (Paul Anthony Stewart) and a young doctor called Sigmund (Stephen Bel Davies) who is dabbling with controversial ideas about sexual problems and father-son relationships ("Don’t worry, I never get published"). The inclusion of these real-life cultural giants helps to highlight the dangers of the reactionary regime, adding depth to the conflict between Rudolf and the emperor -- as does the figure of the emperor’s trusted German relation Kaiser Wilhelm II (an outrageous but effective camp performance by John Hellyer), whose sudden cries of "Deutchlaaaaand!" followed by canned cheering are uncomfortably prescient, revealing a ruthlessness and arrogance under the comic accent (taking off his boot: "Aha! Ein pebble!").

The musical numbers (music by Joseph Zellnik) are outstanding. Using period and contemporary musical theatre sounds, the score runs the gauntlet from tentative romance through witty humor and bittersweet observation to the stirring song of social unrest "I am Vienna". Dramatically, the songs are highly effective, revealing character and pointing up relationships with an intensity and economy that would be impossible through spoken language. Crucially, there is never a sense of emotional manipulation: the songs arise from characters, all of whom are too intelligent for simplistic platitudes. Even the neglected Crown Princess Stephanie manages to joke through her pain: "He has a lot of duties/ One of which is me / I’m every other Tuesday/ From 1 til … maybe 3."

The multiple viewpoints, the lack of sentimentality, and the use of recognizable real-life figures ensure that this musical is more than just another Romeo and Juliet set to music. It is an entertaining and gently probing exploration of a key moment in history through the eyes of people living through it. While the setting is thousands of miles and a hundred years from modern day New York, there is a definite topicality in the way it approaches the question of history as a work in progress.

Box Score (City of Dreams)

Box Score:

Book: 2
Music and lyrics: 2
Directing: 2
Performing: 2
Sets: 2
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2002 Miranda Lundskaer-Nielsen