Herbie Goes Bananas: Controversial Musical About Herberts Cukurs Opens in Liepaja

Photo: Raimonds Birkenfelds / Publicity Photo

Herberts Cukurs was neither a sadistic Nazi killer nor a self-taught aviation genius. He was a simple-minded Everyman who loved his country, loved his gal and would have turned out just fine if the rest of the world had just left him alone to fly planes. This, in essence, is the argument of the controversial new musical Cukurs. Herberts Cukurs which premiered in his home town of Liepaja October 11. First it is worth noting that the theatre was only around half full with perhaps 300 people in attendance. Prior to curtain up, producer Juris Millers invited those that did show up to move forward to fill up the front rows. He also said that “many who planned to come today have decided not to” because of pressure exerted on them by media and politicians.

“We are not Herbert Cukurs’ advocates and we are not his judges,” Millers said, “I hope this performance will make you think.” In that at least he was right – no-one could watch this show without pondering what it is they are witnessing. But the show itself asks few serious questions and suggests no answers at all other than a heavy implication that Herberts Cukurs was a good guy who saved rather than killed Jews.

It’s impossible to take it as the lightweight, enjoyable confection it should be because it is impossible to escape the context in which the show is happening. We are talking about a man that we know in a future scene must be linked to some of the most heinous crimes ever committed.

Photo : Raymond Birkenfelds / Publicity image

The first scene opens in entirely predictable fashion with young Herberts playing with a toy plane and dreaming of flying. Almost instantly he is transformed into handsome adulthood and the girls in  Riga’s cafes are giggling about what a dishy prospect he is. We get jolly tea dance music, a finger-clickin’ tango and finally Cukurs, Herberts Cukurs stops discussing propeller screws with his captain and notices Milda. Instantly he falls in love with her name as much as anything else, gushing: “Milda, that’s a truly Latvian name!” It’s lucky she wasn’t called Hilda or she would have had no chance with patriotic Herberts, who in every subsequent scene reminds us that he really loves his country.

The rest of the first half of the show sees Cukurs, Herberts Cukurs’ triumphant rise to national hero status and closes with a rousing patriotic paean to the fatherland that in all honesty has a lot more pizazz than the actual national anthem.

In fact the upbeat first half of the show (which is considerably longer than the ‘serious’ second half) contains some nice, if generic, song and dance. But it’s impossible to take it as the lightweight, enjoyable confection it should be because it is impossible to escape the context in which the show is happening. We are talking about a man that we know in a future scene must be linked to some of the most heinous crimes ever committed. That fact is always there in the background, like the iceberg looming steadily into view in a musical about the Titanic.

There is one particularly odd moment in the first half when Cukurs, Herberts Cukurs arrives in the Gambia after his record breaking flight from Riga, which mainly involved ascending and descending symbolic steps.

Thankfully there are no spear-waving blacked-up natives running around as might have been feared. Instead there is a single blacked-up matriarch who sits in shadow and rocks back and forth in a manner presumably suggestive of ancient tribal wisdom. “Ah, white man, you talk of freedom!” she intones before launching into a sort of hybrid Paul Simon meets Paul Robeson song about letting her people go from the rotten colonial powers. It’s all done with a sort of child’s view of what a politically correct treatment would be and as a result comes off rather unfortunately as completely politically incorrect.

As ill-advised as the project is, there are a few positives about the evening, even if they pale into insignificance besides the omissions and mistakes. In the lead role Juris Jope disaplys a fine tenor voice. As the portrayal of Cukurs as a borderline simpleton requires him to do little more than look first admirably modest and then deeply worried, his dramatic skills are never seriously tested.

WHO WAS HERBERTS CUKURS?

Cukurs was a pioneering Latvian long-distance pilot, who won acclaim for his international solo flights in the 1930s. He was a member of the notorious Arajs Kommando which was involved in murders of Latvian Jews as part of the Holocaust but he never stood trial. He fled to Brazil after the war and was assassinated in Uruguay by operatives of the Israeli intelligence service in 1965.

 

Given the limited resources clearly available to the production (music comes from a backing track rather than a live orchestra), the sets and choreography are also professionally handled. Maybe if this team concocted a lightweight, fun musical that did not have heavy historical revisionist overtones it would be worth watching.

The only performance of potential depth is all-round bad guy Atis Auzans who plays a sort of reverse Zelig figure. First he’s a slimy Latvian ambassador in France who persuades Herbie to sign a sponsorship contract with Renault that threatens to ruin his self-made-man credibility. Next he pops up as a Cruella de Ville NKVD komissar who forces Cukurs to sign up as a spy (against his will) while laughing at his bourgeois aspiration to get on the property ladder. He tops even that sneering interlude as SS officer Voldemar Muttin who repeats the same process of signing up Herberts (against his will) then performs the execution of the Jew Shapiro in the wings while Herberts stands innocently center stage.

The second half of the show is – again, utterly predictably – the reverse of the first, only this time without the benefit of belle époque frivolity. The music becomes doom laden and disharmonic. There is a crude rip-off of ‘Comme d’habitude’/’My way’ as a prison song and an even more gnashing-of-teeth effort about the ‘Baigie gadi’ or ‘Terrible years’.

In all this, Herberts Cukurs is an almost entirely passive figure. Things happen to him, first good, then bad. When they are good he is happy. When they are bad he is sad. He has the emotional depth of Pinocchio, without the novelty of a trick nose.

And if Herberts’ actual character is lightly sketched at best, most of the others are barely visible. Milda produces a baby (his) while he’s off gallivanting round the globe. What happens to his cheeky mechanics, who provide light relief in one scene? Are they perhaps turned into cannon fodder? We never find out. What happens to his captain? Is he purged? Is the weird Renault magnate sent to a concentration camp? The sexy flamenco girl? His fellow prisoners? We never find out. Their fates are unimportant compared to the fate of Cukurs, Herberts Cukurs.

Photo : Raymond Birkenfelds / Publicity image

The low point of the evening comes when Jewish businessman Shapiro reappears. A bumbling comic figure in the first half, now he comes complete with young son. The Nazis are rounding up Jews. “Why are you crying, papa?” asks Shapiro junior. He soon gets his answer when they are grabbed and sent to the ghetto. Luckily, Cukurs, Herberts Cukurs is on hand and in the one piece of active intervention he makes during the entire show, he saves the boy from German clutches.

Seconds later, Shapiro senior is shot off-stage with a completely unnecessary implication it was because he was running away, not because it was all part of the genocidal master plan. “Halt, Jew!” Muttin screams a second before the fateful report is heard in the wings. This is the only death alluded to directly.

Before the echo from the shot that killed his father has even died away, Shapiro junior turns to the audience clutching his teddy bear and sings a solo song about how sad he is. It is emotional manipulation of the cheapest sort and the only point in the evening which really makes one look towards the exits.

From that point on, the show is a busted flush. There’s a brief scene in which apparently everyone in Riga knows Cukurs, Herberts Cukurs is sheltering Jews before the writers clearly decide they have boxed themselves in. They either have to show Herberts as an accessory to genocide or admit he’s an idiotic bystander. They fudge the whole thing by sending on the entire cast to whisper ‘Slepkava’ (‘Killer’) to a crescendo at which point Cukurs, Herbert Cukurs decides he’s finally had enough too and reprises his barnstorming “my name is written in the heavens” theme tune.

Curtain. Applause. Brief standing ovation from the majority of the audience, the rest looking like the audience at the end of ‘Springtime for Hitler’, completely slack-jawed and incredulous.

So the real villain of the piece isn’t Herberts, the Jews, the Soviets or even the Nazis. It is contracts. All his problems stem from signing contracts. Shapiro (stereotypically obsessed with money, worried about shape of his Semitic nose) pesters Herberts to sign a contract when he’s trying to put his plane together. The slimy Latvian ambassador to France and the man from Renault distract him with a lucrative sponsorship contract en route to Africa. The NKVD and the SS both demand his signature. Poor, put-upon Herberts has no interest in signing any of these contracts. But he signs them all, just for some peace. If only they had left him alone!

For all that, this show may be worth seeing as it departs on a brief tour. It offers nothing to convert fans of Cukurs or critics of Cukurs. It is far too naïve and crass for that. But it does raise legitimate questions about the limits of musical theatre as an art form and free speech in general. See it and make up your on mind, not about Cukurs’ innocence or guilt, as Millers invited, but about whether there is a place for this sort of thing on the stage.


 

This piece was originally published on the Latvian public media’s English language service here

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