Child Star Kiki Shoots to Fame in Ravished 1931 Germany and Everybody Cashes InCulture Watch
Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.
New York Music Festival
Theater at St. Clement’s
420 W. 46th Street
New York, N.Y.
In just thirty seconds, you will fall in love with Kiki, a little four-year-old German girl who lives with her hard-working seamstress mother in a crowded apartment building. The amiable child, played marvelously by an adult, Jenna Colella, steals every scene she romps through in Kiki Baby, a winning new musical comedy that is part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival.
Ms. Colella is wonderful, a sensation. She is dressed like a little child, and acts like one, with a deep frown or effervescent glee on her face. She is so good at the impersonation that you really think she’s young, although she is about 5’7” and the tallest four-year-old in the world. A music impresario hears her sing while he is giving a neighbor a tryout and signs her up, promising her mom fame and lots of money. Mom, who has been working tirelessly just to pay the rent, agrees quickly.
The impresario then hires all of Kiki’s lovable neighbors as staff for her brand new career and begins to book her all over Germany. The mom, and staff, salivate over all the money they are going to earn and fame they are going to receive.
Little Kiki understands this and promptly becomes a first-class brat, making endless and ridiculous demands of people who do what she asks, fearing that she will stop singing and send them back to their dreary lives.
Her dad, working in America until he can build up a butcher shop business and then send for Kiki and her mom, arrives, unannounced, at the end of the first act and is disgusted when he sees what fools Kiki has made out of everybody. Success, apparently, had a high price and no one had any control of little Kiki.
The second act is a push-and-pull battle between all in the fight for money, fame and Kiki’s place as a four-year-old in her family. There is much arguing and shouting as the kid’s career skyrockets, the money pours in and the father groans. What price success indeed?
The show is a reminder to all that the success of kids in show business can not only wreck them, but their families, friends and relatives. The play reminded me of those child beauty pageant shows we see on television in the United States. The 1931 play could have been set in America this morning.
What makes Kiki Baby such a charming story is the mix of a funny and perceptive script and numerous well written songs (Grant Sturiale and Price) that not only help to tell the story, but add some real bounce and fun to the show. The singing and choreography in the play, especially the crazy dinner scene in act two, is terrific.
Directors Lonny Price, a theater veteran who co-wrote the book, and Matt Cowart keep the play moving along at several different levels and never let it drag. They make sure that Kiki does not walk off the stage; she bounds off. They pull all of the skill out of their talented cast and keep the story moving up in the first act and then down in the second. And they do all of this with a sparse, and I mean sparse, set. On a larger Broadway theater set, this play would really soar.
Price and Cowart get superb performances from Jill Paice as Christine, the mom, Jennifer Laura Thompson, an opera singer, along with Jim Walton, Stacie Lewis, Megan Lawrence, Adam Heller, Helen-Jean Arthur, Eric Leviton, Steve Rosen and Louis Hobson. Costume director Wade Laboisonniere has done fine work in making them look like working-class Germans of 1931.
The history in the play must have been hidden under the apartment’s piano top. Where is it? All we are told is that the play takes place in a town in Germany in 1931. In that year Germany was reeling from the Great Depression. Unemployment had skyrocketed and thousands of businesses had collapsed. The Nazi stormtroopers were out in the streets, taking full advantage of the dire circumstances the country found itself, blaming all the woes on either the Weimar Republic government or the Jews. By 1931, the Nazi were the second-largest party in Germany with hundreds of thousands of members (they would seize power in 1933). They had been staging huge, colorful outdoor rallies at Nuremberg and other cities for years. Their brazen red flags and huge black swastikas were everywhere in Germany. They were written about and photographed endlessly. Yet the play does not have a single line about the Depression or the Nazis. All the families in Germany discussed the Nazis. Yet everybody in this play was too busy discussing music to notice the Nazis? It does not make sense. It would be like setting the play in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in 1863 and not mentioning the Civil War.
Kiki Baby, a sure fire hit, probably will move on to a larger theater in New York, perhaps even Broadway. When it does, the writers have got to add in more dialogue about the Depression and the Nazis. This play is very good without those mentions, but would be an award winner with them. There are also a number of scenes in the play that could easily be re-written to focus on fears of the Nazis and their malevolent leader, Adolf Hitler.
PRODUCTION: Produced by the New York Theatre Festival, Sets: James Noone, Costumes: Wade Laboisonniere, Lighting: Marc Janowitz, Sound: Alex Neumann, Musical Director: Mark Hartman, Choreography: Josh Rhodes. Directed by Lonny Price and Matt Cowart.
Bruce Chadwick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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