In the words of one particular NZ advert/television personality, ‘here’s a tip’ – find a comedy festival schedule, pick an act and prepare for the unexpected. Those that like their comedy musical-flavoured really should take the opportunity to see British comedian Rainer Hersch, especially those who have enough chops to bang out ‘Chopsticks’. ‘Chopsticks’ is a waltz, a form of music that originated in the south of Germany sometime around the 16th Century. Excuse the informative whimsicality but this is exactly what you can expect from Rainer Hersch…and a Steinway piano.
On Friday night, Rainer Hersch’s solo performance at the Auckland Town Hall was a captivating tribute to Danish entertainer, Victor Borge – who happens to be a complete legend of the game and gigged regularly into his 90’s. Hersch weaves a routine that jumps between Victor Borge, various famous composers and some brilliant imitations of their accents. These included a memorable take on German stand-up comedy and the charm of South African reviewers; he even had a go at a kiwi drawl at one stage.
Rainer Hersch demands one thing from his audience and that is attention. You do not need to revisit your encyclopaedia and piano lessons to enjoy his show but his take on phonetic grammar speech proves that constant anticipation is a handy qualification. I must admit, I did not know what I was in for but I left having witnessed a very funny and hugely entertaining show that resulted, yet again, in an involuntary yet delightful educational experience.
Edmonton Journal'5/5 - ...I have never witnessed a more captivating solo performance than the one British comedian Rainer Hersch is delivering...'open/close
Two words: See him.
In 10 years of covering the Fringe, I have never witnessed a more captivating solo performance than the one British comedian Rainer Hersch is delivering to standing ovations at the Westbury Theatre (by happy provenance, the festival's largest venue).
You don't have to know who Victor Borge was to come away from this show winded by laughter and a bit stunned by the gift of entertainment you've just received. Maybe you've caught one of the old Borge shows on a PBS pledge week. Perhaps, if you're of a certain age, you recall seeing him on The Ed Sullivan Sho- one Sunday night, with your father cackling away in the easy chair. It doesn't matter. Hersch's full-body transformation into a unique pianist/comedian who was the Seinfeld of his day is the sort of virtuoso act that requires no reference points.
But here are a few, nonetheless. The Broadway show Borge financed at his own expense back in 1953 still holds a record for consecutive performances. At one point in his career, he was the highest-paid entertainer in the world. Something like three million videos of his comic concert shows have sold -- even Saddam Hussein owned a copy.
Hersch drops in and out of character throughout the show, at one moment he's stepping to the piano for one of the classic Borge bits, at another he's relating his own strange oddysey from standup comic to unofficial archivist of a man the New York Times once dubbed "the funniest entertainer in the world, with or without a piano."
It will seem like a cliche, I know, when I tell you that Hersch looks a bit like John Cleese. But decked out in his long tux, with his hair swept back, addressing us in that cultivated Danish accent with Borge's impeccable comic timing, he becomes the funny old maestro -- hilariously, poignantly and completely.
Borge, who died Dec. 22, 2000, at the age of 91, put it best when he said: "Nothing brings people together quicker than laughter ... except perhaps the reading of a will."
This show is something truly special. I can't recommend it highly enough.
After being compared to classical pianist-turned-comedian Victor Borge by the umpteenth critic—"Not since Victor Borge has a musician-comic raised the roof with such continuous laughter” was one such comment from the South African Post—Rainer Hersch decided to research his popular doppelganger (who seemed to be weaseling his way into his PR campaign) to find out what all the fuss was about.
Discovering that he did, indeed, seem to be channeling the talents of the late entertainer, Hersch fully embraced this not-so-unique selling point, and has here devised what is essentially a one man show (bar a short piano piece with a second player) that at once poses as tribute, impression, biography and autobiography.
Transposing his own story of how he came to study, enjoy and eventually meet Borge with the Dane’s own path to success, Hersch skips casually between impressions of Borge’s routines—for which he has expertly borrowed everything from the gestures and intonation right down to subtle facial ticks—stories of Borge’s life, from his roots as a young pianist to escaping the Nazis, and his own journey of discovery, throwing in a few Herschisms for good measure (and perhaps to remind us that he’s a performer in his own right too).
The show offers as much insight into his half-British half-German successor as it does the Danish showman himself. Hersch’s impressions of Borge steal the show—particularly the phonetic punctuation routine, a standard of Borge’s, which he originally ‘borrowed’ from another comedian, and his inflationary language that effortlessly pushes the show up from wonderful to “twoderful”, but his cheeky Pythonesque glances and asides betray an energy and enthusiasm that’s becoming very rare.
While Hersch’s own material does pale slightly in comparison, the honesty and intensity of his performance makes him incredibly likeable and enjoyable to watch. The snippets of his own work, including the crowd-pleasing “what they’re really singing about at the opera” in which he ‘translates’ a passage with the use of flashcards, promise there’s still more to come from this comedian who has found such success on the festival circuit.
Rainer Hersch’s Victor Borge offers both a retrospective of and an introduction to the brilliance of Victor Borge and, indeed, Hersch, who has succeeded in creating a funny, touching and uplifting evening worthy of its possessive title.
A thoroughly enjoyable night brimming with warmth and charm.
Why did Rachmaninoff write his piano concerto in four flats?
What happens if you turn ‘The Blue Danube’ upside down?
And who should you never challenge to a game of Scrabble?
Rainer Hersch answers all of these and more through a delightful blend of music, storytelling and typical self-effacing British standup in 'Rainer Hersch’s Victor Borge'.
The show is Hersch’s tribute to Borge, a Danish musical comedian whose career spanned decades, and who still holds the world record for the longest-running one-man theatre show (840 performances on Broadway from October 1953 to January 1956).
Hersch darts to and from the piano as he tells the story of Borge’s life and career, along with smatterings from his own.
Waltzing elegantly between the two narratives, his musical puns can be enjoyed by even the most tone-deaf – although an appreciation of classical music may induce a few more chortles. The best are borrowed from Borge’s routines but are nonetheless well executed; Hersch’s segues provide context for those of us not lucky (or, dare I say, old) enough to have come across Borge before.
Away from the piano, Hersch also deftly navigates his way through Borge’s ‘phonetic punctuation’ routine, using his voice as an instrument to bring a whole new level of whizz-bangery to the art of storytelling. I was in tears as my brain struggled to keep up with his.
Hersch’s passion for Borge’s work is clear – a peril of this being that his voice occasionally got swept away, descending into an excited babble that vanished into the back of the Auckland Town Hall’s Concert Chamber.
But that is easily forgiven and forgotten as the man with the coattails and curls explains how The Monkees ended up with Saddam Hussein, and which classical musicians plagiarised Abba’s music.
Absurdity has never made more sense.
Stand-ups use familiar old material at their peril. Lifting routines from other comedians? Also frowned upon. By those standards Rainer Hersch's Victor Borge should be run out of town, his long tuxedo tails flapping behind him.
Because this performer, who is half-English half-German - "Any German people here? Comedy show. Hardly likely" - does both.
But his homage to Victor Borge isn't just a cover version of the late great Dane and those ivory- and rib-tickling routines which took him from Copenhagen to Broadway to television-powered international fame through the 50s, 60s and 70s.
No, it's part one-man theatre piece, part live biography, part stand-up, part sit-down piano bash and totally terrific.
Yes, it does help if you've heard of Borge, who in his heyday was to comedy what Scandinavian near-neighbours Abba were to pop. This is being written by someone who interviewed Borge on his final New Zealand tour and barely got a question out due to being rendered a starstruck seven year-old by his memories of his tv shows decades before. But it's not an absolute requirement and looking back now through Hersch's eyes, it could be said Borge, was a man ahead of his time.
His phonetic punctuation? Text language in its infancy, surely. Grafting Happy Birthday and Chopsticks into Moonlight Sonata ? Borge was clearly the first master of the mash-up.
Actually, Hersch, who plays Borge complete with accent as well as stepping out of character to narrate his life story, reminds us that phonetic punctuation routine was stolen from a Norwegian writer who sued, only to die before the case was settled.
As Hersch-as-Borge says to Hersh-as-narrator: "Give me a break Hersh, you knicked this entire performance!" Borge fans should feel free to read that last sentence using phonetic punctuation then ROFL.
This is also a show that proves a couple of things. The adage that talent borrows and genius steals, for one thing. And that (whisper it) reviewers can be useful.
Because as Hersch explains, he only started considering the Borge mind meld after critics started comparing his own classical music comedy to the old master who he had never heard of. His interest piqued, he eventually met his new comedy hero, resulting in some hilarious photographic evidence of the encounter.
On one level this show is a don't-tell-'em-like-they-used-to salute, with Hersh deftly executing some of Borge's most memorable piano gags, his upside down Blue Danube and Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 being delivered misplaced note for misplaced note.
On another, it's an engrossing piece of biography with Hersch interweaving the story of Borge's very big 20th century life with as much pathos as humour.
There is still plenty of Hersch's own take on the classical music world, ranging from an impersonation of Canadian concert pianist Glenn Gould's mad ecstasy at the keyboard that suggests itself as a future arts fest show, to an encore that fixes the usual problems with opera - not enough jokes, can't understand the lyrics - in a hilarious blur of cue cards.
This opening night of Hersch's season was remarkably under-attended. Maybe that was because many of the city's classical buffs - some of whom who might owe Borge for their interest - were next door at the Auckland Philharmonia concert. Hersch teams up with the APO at the end of his season of some orchestral shenanigans. But his solo Borge really is the one to see first.
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It was sad to see the sparse turnout for what proved to be a truly professional show – something that Rainer Hersch picked up on and immediately incorporated wittily into his slick intro.
His candour with the audience from the get-go about his inspiration to create a show around Victor Borge – more out of curiosity rather than initial idolising – set the stage beautifully for this personal account. He admits that after repeated comparison to Borge, in response to his own BBC show, he felt compelled to research the Danish musician who ran away from the Nazis to ultimately become the world’s highest-paid entertainer during the 1960s. In addition to taking us on an historic journey, it was this personal journey of discovery that gave the entire show authenticity.
Hersch's set of a Steinway grand and piano chair is simple and effective, and is aptly complemented by his coat and tails as well as white bowtie. While a majority of his act comprises clowning on the piano, the intelligent wordplay that completes his stand-up displays Borge's unique talent.
The show very skillfully juxtaposes the classical greats such as Beethoven, Grieg, Mozart, Offenbach and Rachmaninoff against the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber, ABBA and even Michael Jackson. In addition to Hersch’s agile fingers as a virtuoso pianist mirroring Borge’s talent, he exhibits an equally agile tongue with the number of accents he tackles including South African, Irish, American, German and Kiwi.
I was initially concerned that the use of classical music excerpts would tire after a while but references to pop culture, audio sound effects and Hersch’s own experience as a standup comedian kept it fresh and varied. In a way it could be classified as the comedy classical music version of The Complete Works of Shakespeare in 90 minutes, but with a healthy addition of reality and a journey of discovery for the performer himself.
The middle-aged Mozart lookalike was charming, entertaining and above all clever – he commanded the stage and audience with confidence and poise, which made us forget about the less than optimal turnout prompting frequent laugh out loud fits. Hersch also played brilliantly and self-depreciatingly on his half English, half German heritage with some home truths and emotional moments about Borge’s experiences as a Jew in the (don’t mention the) war, and his struggle for success.
Borge’s phonetic punctuation was probably the highlight of the evening for me. It is impossible to explain it without giving it entirely away – you’ll just have to got check it out to appreciate the amazing onomatopoeic sounds that he expertly executes. The show is a well-oiled production, which has been honed to perfection. The deft weaving of Borge’s story with perfectly timed musical effects, lighting cues and opera surtitles that enhanced Hersch’s equally polished delivery were truly hilarious, leaving the audience in stitches.
Rainer Hersch’s Victor Borge is a well-paced, charming, smart and funny show that I would recommend to anyone – and will do so as more people deserve to see this gem. And one of the best things about the show is that you don’t need to know who Victor Borge is. Similarly you don’t need to know or even like classical music to enjoy the show. The way in which he has strung both old and new together with a great deal of skill and precision makes it a light entertaining evening that can be enjoyed by young and old alike.