The lives of famous figures in the arts world have long provided provocative fodder for countless plays and musicals.
For example, “Amadeus” offered an inside look at the quirkiness of Mozart and the events surrounding his death. “Lust for Life” explored the world of painter Vincent Van Gogh (with late actor Kirk Douglas nabbing an Oscar nomination for the lead role). Hershey Felder has practically crafted a career portraying famous composers in one-man shows he’s brought to Laguna Playhouse and other regional theaters.
However, the historical drama “Taking Sides,” currently on view through Feb. 23 at Newport Theatre Arts Center, takes a slightly different approach to its main subject, German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler.
Furtwangler is considered one of the giants of 20th century classical music. His career was on an upward trajectory around the same time that Hitler came to power and the Nazi regime took hold in Germany. Furtwangler wanted nothing to do with the prevailing politics and did everything he could to continue conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, even while Jewish musicians were being ousted, with many fleeing to America.
“Taking Sides” takes place in 1946 (shortly after WWII) when many prominent Germans were required to submit to a process of denazification. Furtwangler was accused of being a Nazi sympathizer and conducting Nazi concerts.
“Taking Sides” explores the battle between Furtwangler and Major Steve Arnold, who wants to nail Furtwangler as a Nazi and send him to prison. The play, which takes place over the course of several weeks in Arnold’s office in the American zone of occupied Berlin, is akin to watching a trial with only one juror: Arnold. There’s also his young Lieutenant, and an even younger German assistant, to record the proceedings and make comments.
According to “Taking Sides” playwright Ronald Harwood, he wanted to write about a moral dilemma—in this case, Furtwangler’s decision to remain in Germany and use his art not as propaganda but as “eloquent protest.”
“If you live in a dictatorship and you have a threat to your family and yourself, it’s very difficult to behave bravely. Very few people did,” Harwood wrote. “If Hitler had called and said ‘You’re my favorite playwright, come and read to me,’ I can’t say what I would have done.”
Those are just a few of the issues debated in “Taking Sides.” The play itself is fascinating, if a little wordy, and offers a historical perspective on the arts in Germany during WWII and the challenges faced by musicians and others who had to make decisions that would affect their lives and the lives of others.
The dialogue is underscored by captivating performances by Vince Campbell as Arnold, and Bob Fetes and Furtlanger, both of whom bring their characters to life and seem invested in taking a side to defend.
The supporting cast serves their roles well, particularly Keith Bush is Helmuth Rode, a former Berlin Philharmonic violinist whose reluctant confession could entangle Furtwangler in a web of deceit — if the confession is true.
Director Sharyn Case holds it all together with a focus on her two leads and letting the story unfold at an unhurried pace. She has wisely used actually recordings of Furtwangler throughout the play, which lend an air of authenticity to the proceedings.
For more information and tickets, visit NTACOnline.com or call the box office at (949) 631-0288.