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09/17/2013 10:52 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2013

Give Mein Regards Far Auf Broadway

Several months back, I wrote an article here about a German musical that was playing in Berlin the last time I was in town for the IFA, tech trade show, Hinterm Horizont (Beyond the Horizon). It's a "Mamma Mia!" type of musical, using the songs of hugely popular German rocker-songwriter Udo Lindenberg and writing a story around them. From everything I'd been able to read about it, it's basically a Romeo and Juliet tale during the time of the Berlin Wall, where a fictional young Udo goes to East Germany, falls for a beautiful young girl, Jessie - who returns the favor - but politics and a wall get in their way. Problems and songs ensue. I'd seen excerpts from the show, which seemed a bit overdone but lively, and I loved the video of the title song, song by Lindenberg himself with the show's female star Josephin Busch. (The actor who plays young Udo, Serkan Kaya, acts in the dramatic portion of the video.) You can see that video in the link above.

Well, as life would have it, Hinterm Horizont is still successfully playing there - and the Theater am Potsdamer Platz is literally half a block from the hotel where I was staying. And further, the two original stars are still in the show. Okay, those of you who have been reading my entertainment articles for a while close enough - do you honestly think there was any way in the world I wasn't going to try to go if I could work it out?! Well, fortunately we did have a night off one evening with no events planned, so I went to the box office and got a single ticket. (Shockingly, no one else from our group had the slightest interesting in joining me to see a German musical. Go figure...)

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(That's the theater on the right, taken from my hotel room. I told you it was close! Hey, I don't lie to you.)

The woman at the box office was a little surprised to see me. "For Hinterm Horizont?" she asked in a bit of disbelief, since the Blue Man Group was playing across the street, and she thought that's what I was asking for. Yes, Hinterm Horizont, I said. But she still was wary, and trying to be polite. "You know it's all in German??," she said in halting English. Yes, I knew that. But hey, it's songs, I said, so I can enjoy the music. "Ah, yes," she smiled, actually seeming happy that I wasn't bewildered -- or a crazy person (or at least a dangerous crazy person) -- and glad that I wanted to see their show.

As for that show, it is indeed a bit overdone in places, but surprisingly quiet and thoughtful in others, and lively and very energetic throughout. And long, over three hours with intermission. It's somewhat multimedia, using a bit of film - some archival footage, other new - as well as occasional video that I have a feeling is being done live backstage. The set is atmospheric rather than realistic, though it's always changing and helps add to the energy and adds to the (for lack of a better word) pizzazz. There's a fair amount of showmanship. At one point, for instance, Jessie's brother enters though a side door of the theater into the audience, holding a big balloon and singing - and starts to get lifted up towards the ceiling (I eventually figured out that he was escaping over the Berlin Wall) and finally he disappears through the roof. Also, looming high up over the set is a really massive - really massive - giant fedora (Udo Lindenberg's trademark), which even often drops down onto the stage, and the performers act on and around it. There's a fair amount of dancing, not one of my favorite things, but it tends to be plot-related (like a bizarre number that's a battle between the armed police and rebelling kids with guitars, all the while Jessie weaves her way through, amid smoke - they use smoke a bit throughout the evening), so it was reasonably effective.

I can't tell you exactly what was going on, though I had a reasonable sense of it for the bulk of the show. It seems like it's more about the Berlin Wall part of the story - the protests and the divisions within society that it caused, rather than the love story. That appears to be more of a theme that allows a plot to carry through. As a result, the Jessie character has more to do in the show than Udo. Nonetheless, Serkan Kaya was terrific as Udo, and I suspect that he was even better for people who know the real Udo Linderberg far better than I did in my little research. But Josephin Busch, for me, was a particular joy and helped carry the evening. Her character goes through far more change -- starting out as a wide-eyed school girl, grows up, her brother is arrested and she's interrogated and beaten by the police, has a brief affair with Udo, gets pregnant and abandoned , while Udo is pretty much... well, Udo -- what stood out even more for me was that playing a role for about a year (I figured), it was impressive how hugely energetic she still was, particularly at the beginning when playing the naïve, enthused Jessie.

That's why I was even more impressed when I discovered they hadn't been playing the show for just a year - but (are you ready) 2-1/2 years!! Let me repeat that: 2-12 freaking years. Sticking with a show that long is absolutely remarkable for the two stars, but further, doing it without seeming remotely tired or bored, but coming across fresh and vibrant, as if it was the first night -- after 2-1/1 freaking years (and this is an energetic show) -- that's something quite terrific.

By the way, the reason I figured out how long it had been is because of an oddity: in a curtain speech, I could make out that that very night I went was the 1,000 performance. (To help celebrate, they brought out non-performers from backstage to join them for the finale, and even got one of them - a producer or stage manager? - to single a solo, poorly but with enthusiasm.) That may be part (perhaps) of why they had so much enthusiasm that night - though I suspect they always do. That's just the sense of the show. And you don't stick with a show for 2-1/2 years, for 1,000 performances unless you really love it.

The score is upbeat, dramatic at times, and enjoyable. How well it fits in with the show, I have no idea. The one thing that surprised me, though, was that when Kaya and Busch sing the wonderful, lilting Big Title Song, that soars, it sort of peters out into the drama of the scene, and the audience doesn't get a full chance to cheer. More on that in a moment, though.

The structure of the play is a bit odd. As I said, it's more about the Berlin Wall than the love story. And it's told in flashback, starting out with Jessie about 15-20 years older (played by another actress) and a son who it's pretty clear was fathered by Udo. When the Berlin Wall story ends, however, so too does young Jessie's with her baby (it wasn't clear to us non-German speaking audience members whether Udo knows about the baby, but it seems not), and then Josephin Busch exits the stage and show. And then we return to the present day without the female lead for the last almost 15-20 minutes, and the Udo/Jessie story wraps up with that other actresses playing the older Jessie. It seems to work, I guess, it's just odd-ish.

There were two sequences that come across as quite moving. One is when the Berlin Wall comes down. It was wonderfully staged, with a somewhat dreamlike, disjointed atmosphere, but mixed into the swirling and celebration are occasional families tearfully being reunited, with a wonderful song being performed throughout.

The other is the finale. Because that's when they reprise the title song, and this is where, boy howdy, they really do the power ballad proud. As Udo has reunited with the older Jessie and her teenage son who he's meeting for the first time, they all reach a reconciliation. And at that point they begin to sing "Hinterm Horizont" again - except that's really young Jessie's song - and as touching as it is to see the grown-up Jessie coming full-circle to sing it, it just feels a touch wrong not to have young Jessie singing "her" song. But then, from the back, Josephin Busch re-enters the show, almost as if the memory is coming alive again, and she and older Jessie both sing it together with Udo -- until finally she and Udo take over and sing "their" duet alone and soar with it. It's extremely poignant and effective - but that's only part of it, because little by little, audience members began standing up and cheering along and then as the song builds, more of audience members stand until finally almost the entire theater is on its feet as the song heads to its climax and finally ends to the audience roaring.

For that matter, the last 15 minutes of the evening (including a long curtain/call finale) are genuinely enthralling. Not just the last scene, but the handling of the curtain call, and then they bring in a wildly upbeat Udo Lindenberg hit that hadn't been sung all night --"Mein Ding" (My Thing) -- but is a joyous way to go out as the audience has remained on its feet cheering. Now, of course they do every night, but add the 1,000-performance celebration that went into it that evening, and it was quite an ending.

Without knowing exactly what was going on, it's clear that this show is a real crowd-pleaser. That it's been running 2-1/2 years - and the house was maybe 85% full - on a Wednesday, is testament to that. But it also draws a noticeably young crowd. (Though it's evenly mixed with adults, as well.) And they -- and everyone-- are clapping along loudly throughout the evening. And cheering, as I said, at the end.

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(Don't ask me, I don't understand the curtain. But it's certainly entertaining. They had a different piece of artwork before the opening, this is during intermission.)

And so, finally, as a treat for all you who made it this far, here's an extended medley from German TV of Hinterm Horizont. It's different from the one I posted previously. In fact, here you even (sort of) get to see the giant hat! But this is actually a mini-hat -- the giant one is...well, giant. About eight times bigger than even this. (They need a ladder to get to the top.) And also a couple of dancing bears (they're from the "falling of the Berlin Wall" sequence. Really. Hey, I told you it was dreamlike)

But wait, there's more! I just realized that I can't let all you fine folk leave without seeing The Hat! You deserve better. So, here's footage taken during a performance, the scene when Jessie and Udo meet for the first time. And that massive prop behind them that you can't identify at first -- that's the hat! Trust me, you'll see.

But first... most importantly of all, the hat!

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Robert J. Elisberg's new novel The Wild Roses, a comic adventure in the spirit of The Three Musketeers but with three women, recently reached the Top 50 in three Amazon Kindle bestseller categories. His other writing can be found at Elisberg Industries.

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