I like theatre. I like the stage. And I’ll even confess to liking musicals. When I lived in London , I went twice a week. I had friends who got cheap or complimentary tickets and was always happy to oblige when they were looking for company. I went to the fringe theatre’s pay-what-you-can Monday night performances. I took every opportunity that came my way. And to think, that I’ve been living in Budapest for seven years, and tonight was my first time at the Operettszínház? Shame on me.
Hand on heart though, I have a confession to make. I just never for a minute thought that any production here would rate – not in terms of London or New York performances. My mate Manners builds sets. I’ve been in an audience in the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin when the curtain went up and heard the collective gasp of awe when the set was revealed. I’ve gone to musicals with him and had him analyse the technical aspects of fly-ins and what not to the point where I forgot the story.
This evening, at the kind invitation of BZs, I went to see KERO’s production of Ghost. I wasn’t expecting much – I had a hard time getting my head around how they’d manage to convincingly portray a ghost on stage but not twenty minutes into the performance, disbelief suspended, I was enthralled.
There’s a part when Sam (the dead boyfriend – played by Kerényi Miklós Máté) goes through his first door and I swear to you, for a split second, I believed I was seeing a ghost disappear. Okay – I have an active imagination, but I tell you, there were moments when I forgot I was in a theatre watching a staged production; I thought I was in at 3D movie or even on the subway itself (the subway scene alone is worth the price of the ticket). The special effects were as good, if not better, than any I’ve ever seen to the point that then it started to rain, I reached into my bag for my umbrella.
But it wasn’t all burning photos and floating umbrellas. The choreography (by Tihanyi Ákos) was sharp and brilliantly executed. The body pass-throughs were so credible they have to be seen to be believed. The singing was emotional and passionate. And the acting (yes, people do act in musicals) … well…I have only two words: Szulák Andrea.
Headline: White Hungarian actor convincingly plays black American psychic from Spanish Harlem. Recipe: a corkscrew perm, some make-up, and a lot of sass. Szulák was nothing short of brilliant in her portrayal of Oda Mae Brown. It didn’t matter than the sur-titles didn’t translate everything or that I had to choose between catching the words or watching the stage. When Oda Mae was strutting her stuff, she had me. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a musical as much. It’s worth seeing just for the special effects. And at 6000 ft a ticket ( €20), it’s right up there with the best that London and New York have to offer at a fraction of the price. If you’re in Budapest, make it your business to go.
The theatre itself has 901 seats (interesting number) and attracts over 400 000 theatre-goers to the 500 or so performances each year, under the direction of Miklós-Gábor Kerényi – KERO. The main auditorium is lit by a 100-year-old chandelier and the whole place has an other-worldly feel to it. But when it comes to the twenty-first century, the Budapest Operetta and Musical Theatre holds its own. In 2011, it held the exclusive rights to play the musical ‘The Beauty and the Beast’ in five German cities, and in Austria. It is also much sought after for coproductions with theatres in Salzburg, Saint Petersburg, Prague, Bucharest, Erfurt and Yekaterinburg (the latter, if you don’t already know, is the fourth-largest city in Russia – and yes, I had to look it up).
I’ve walked by the theatre on Nagymező many times but my curiosity died when I saw the operett bit – to me, that sounded awfully like a little opera and I’d prefer to have the full-on experience rather than some half-baked notion. But I’m showing my ignorance. Operetta is light opera – as in light on music and light on subject. And apparently Hungary is famous for it. KERO and his team (I’ve heard tell that the place employs about 450 full-time staff – and judging by this particular set, I can well believe it) are making a name for themselves. And I’m sold. The Operettszínház will be seeing me on a monthly basis from now on – and I’m also thinking about resuming my Hungarian lessons…