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Sexy show revives Berlin revue theatre

For years Berlin's historic Friederichstadtpalast staged revue shows that seemed as old as the city itself. Now after years of struggle, a new show is playing to full houses.
/ Source: Reuters

For years Berlin's historic Friederichstadtpalast staged revue shows that seemed as old as the city itself.

The famous theater in the heart of old East Germany even had a production called "100 years of Berlin."

Now after years of struggle the 1,895-seat theater that calls itself Europe's "largest and most modern show palace" has started playing to full houses, attracting younger international audiences, boosting ticket sales and making tidy profits.

Its current show "Qi" — featuring dozens of gravity-defying acts by artists from around the world — is largely responsible for the comeback.

The show, which also includes a gender bending chorus line featuring men and women, was created by general director Berndt Schmidt, who took over at Friederichstadtpalast in 2007 after running theatres in Stuttgart.

What he found in Berlin, he says, was a theater in "crisis." Ticket sales at the grand theater, probably one of the most expensive buildings ever made in Communist East Germany when completed in 1984, were down to 370,000 from a peak of 500,000.

The theater, which features a vast 2,144-square meter stage they call the largest in the world, had a four million euro loss in 2007 and was kept alive on state subsidies.

Revues — traditionally multi-act theatrical shows with music, dancing and comedy — dealt with subjects like witchcraft in the Middle Ages or Casanova, the 18th century lover, and used music from the Moulin Rouge, the 19th century Paris cabaret.

"Business was bad," Schmidt said in an interview with Reuters. "We were very old-fashioned. When you stage an old show, you get an old audience."

Revues — typically lighter fare with visual spectacles, popular satire and risque elements — had intricate story lines staged in German language turning off tourists who did not speak German, he said.

Sexy like Las Vegas

So he set out to reform the theater by moving away from its traditional German roots and creating a Las Vegas-style revue for a broader international audience.

He trained Friederichstadtpalast's 60 classic ballet dancers in modern, jazz and hip hop dance styles. He told the 20-piece orchestra to play Madonna and Kylie Minogue. He sent talent scouts out around the world to find ice dancers, trapeze artists and acrobats, and scrapped nearly all dialogue.

Unafraid to take risks, the unabashed fan of Lady Gaga and Bette Midler also included unconventional acts such as a steamy same sex dance number. The two male dancers in "Qi" kiss at the end of their number, while the women disrobe and dance together under a shower of water.

Sin City is a major entertainment center and business travel destination, known for its carefully cultivated image, gambling and nightlife.

"Revues have to be sexy," said Schmidt, 46. "It's about beautiful bodies — women and men's bodies."

In one scene, titled "Swan Lake Reloaded," female ballet artists begin by dancing a classic number in tutus to the traditional Swan Lake music. They are greeted by street-style male dancers dressed in black leather staged to a rock n' roll version of the classic ballet.

It cost about 4.5 million euros to develop the choreography, costumes and other aspects of "Qi." In 2009, "Qi" earned 17 million euros ($22.93 million) in ticket sales. Audience numbers last year reached 430,000, including 10 percent non-German. That compares to just 3 percent foreign audience in 2007.

The Palast earned an additional 20 million euros from third parties, including the Berlin Film Festival. It had a profit of 500,000 euros last year and Schmidt expects the earnings to increase this year.

Schmidt is already busy planning the next show, "Yma," which opens in September. A main goal is to increase the ratio of non-Germans. He admits he has to first persuade his friends from London or Paris to come see "Qi" when they are in town.

"They see it and say, 'Wow, I didn't expect that'," he said. "They're like 'I thought it would be some humorless German show'."