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Bernhardt on Broadway reviewed by Laura Johnstone
‘Quand Même’ (against all odds) is the reoccurring theme in the musical, ‘Bernhardt on Broadway’ that was researched, written and composed by Carol Dunitz. Dunitz also stars in this two hour theatrical vehicle.
Dunitz as a young girl was often referred to as a ‘little Sarah Bernhardt.’ Years later upon reading over 100 books on the 19th century iconic actress, she has created an intimate showpiece taking the audience through Bernhardt’s life from youth to the Grand Dame of stage, and as a guest to the most notable artists, writers, celebrities and, of course, royalty of her time.
With simple staging, props and beautiful period costumes, the audience is invited into Bernhardt’s salon to hear stories and songs that leave you feeling that you have spent an evening being charmed and entertained by a woman who experienced life to the fullest, even though the road was far from easy. Peppered with French phrases and historical references, the show truly embodies the flavor of the time in which Sarah Bernhardt lived.
Bernhardt’s early life was dominated by her loveless, mostly absent, courtesan mother and her loving grandmother. Her mother’s advice delivered in the song, ‘It’s a Celebration,’ contains a litany of ‘don’ts’ including “don’t make promises you can’t keep,” “don’t leave a stone unturned, and “don’t count chickens before they hatch.” Mama concludes by encouraging little Sarah, “…if you’ve cause to jump for joy, go on and let ‘er rip.” In the song, “I Never Promised You,” her grandmother warns, “life is not always sweet,” but one must forge ahead and take risks to achieve. Sarah took advice from both of the strongest women in her life and lived her life to the fullest, quand même, and on her own terms.
Dunitz incorporates the reoccurring theme, ‘against all odds,’ in the song, ‘Quand Même,’ referencing battles fought and won throughout time by underdogs -- like David overcoming Goliath, discoveries that no one thought possible -- like Edison who gave the world incandescent light, and miracles -- like shouting bringing down the walls of Jericho. This song truly gives the audience insight to the character and drive that is Sarah Bernhardt.
As Bernhardt’s star rose as the gem of the Parisian stage so did the attentions of celebrities of music, science and the arts including Offenbach, D.H. Lawrence, Louis Pasteur and Mark Twain. Whereever she traveled she was treated like royalty, showered with gifts and attention as shared in the tune ‘Royal Presents.’
Bernhardt was one of the first celebrities to endorse popular products of her time and used this as a way to promote herself. In the song, ‘Tour de Force,’ Dunitz playfully rattles off many commercial products from Pears Soap to Urbana Wine, Carter Liver Bitters to Marmon cars that ‘the most famous actress the world has ever known’ endorsed in an effort to continue to fill her coffers and satisfy her unbridled spending.
Although Bernhardt would be accepted in the company of contemporary women, she discovered during her first trip to the United States that much of society was shocked by her reputation and reluctantly welcomed her. Madame Sarah lets us know, however, that that was to change.
Dunitz struts her stuff across the stage when she sings the patriotic song, ‘Hail to the Flag,’ demonstrating Bernhardt’s love for the U.S. However, it is during the song, ‘Too Familiar,’ about Bernhardt’s performance of Racine’s ‘Phaedre’ where Dunitz shows the dramatic poses, gestures, and style so often associated with Bernhardt. While the great tragedienne did not sing, she was said to have a ‘voice of gold.’ Dunitz, on the other hand, has a great singing voice that suits this musical retelling well. She enunciates every lyric clearly and convincingly.
It becomes clear that more than attention from rich and powerful men, more than expensive and exotic gifts bestowed upon her by royalty and countless admirers, and more than her travels to exotic lands, it is the love of the audience that nourishes and sustains Bernhardt. Dunitz incorporates this love in the song, ‘More Than Everything.’ The song is intimate and personal, but it is obvious that the message is meant to be universal.
Dunitz reprises “Quand Même” as a codicil, a reminder of where Bernhardt started and the indomitable spirit that carried her throughout her life. She also uses the reprise as an opportunity to demonstrate the legendary ability she had to charm and captivate men.
Before there was Gaga, Madonna or Cher, there was Bernhardt who rose to the top with style, spirit and creative self-promotion. Dunitz captures the life of a remarkable, bigger- than-life woman, brings you into her 19th century parlor for personal anecdotes and catchy songs full of sly innuendo and clever rhymes, and makes you feel you have spent an intimate evening with Madame Sarah.
This one-woman musical exploration leaves us with great insight into the amazing Sarah Bernhart and the author, songwriter, singer and actor who channels her, Carol Dunitz.
Carol Dunitz has her doctorate in Speech Communication and Theatre from Wayne State University. She is currently touring in ‘Bernhardt on Broadway.’ She can be reached at CDunitz@BernhardtOnBroadway.com or 734.864.3244. More information is available at www.BernhardtOnBroadway.com.