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Casablanca the Musical Premiered in Beijing

It is the early 1940s and the world is engulfed in war. In a corner of North Africa two old lovers meet. But what once was, can never be.... Time has gone by. Rick is saying goodbye to his beloved Ilsa, fleeing the Nazi's with her husband, a resistance leader from occupied Europe. Fast forward 63 years to a stage in Beijing.

Yes, Sam will play the melancholy tune, "As time goes by," again, but not for Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart.

Instead, its haunting strains will echo through Beijing's Great Hall of the People when Warner Bros premieres its brand-new stage version of Casablanca on April 8 to launch the Third Beijing International Drama Festival.

Released in 1942 by Warner Bros Studio, Casablanca is an undisputed Hollywood classic.

Almost everyone knows the story of political and romantic espionage set against the backdrop of World War II, when the battle lines were drawn between democracy and totalitarianism.

And the stage version will not revise the plot.

Although everyone involved with this legendary motion picture has departed this life, the film itself has withstood the test of more than a half-century.

From time to time, someone has attempted a remake of the film, but even the best has been no more than a pale shadow of the original.

Two years ago, the Los Angeles-based choreographer John Clifford suggested Warner Bros produce a stage version of the story.

"There are several musical numbers that take place in Rick's cafe, so I think it's natural to turn it into a multi-disciplined show," said Clifford, who had been with Balanchine at the New York City Ballet and established the Los Alleges Ballet in 1974.

"The idea of other actors trying to say the great dialogue and be compared to the legends, Bogart and Bergman is ridiculous. But the idea of dancers and singers portraying these characters was interesting to them," he explained.

"But it was never going to be easy because Casablanca must not be trivialized. So it is a great personal honor to me that the executives at Warner Bros Studios understood my concept of how I could respect the film and still bring it to the live stage for a whole new generation."

One of the first questions posed by executives at Warner Bros was how Clifford could tell the story.

In a 30-minute workshop last August, the veteran choreographer and director showed them how it was clearly possible using gesture, dance, and song.

The dramatized approach, Clifford explained, takes a unique form and includes pantomime, song, dance, acting and multi-media effects.

Pantomime is the international dramatic art of telling a story without words, and using gestures to convey a variety of words, actions and situations.

"Some form of pantomime can be found in all theatrical cultures around the world. Using mime, a person can say specific things, such as, Stay, Go, I Love You, I Hate You, Leave Me Alone, I'm Sad, I'm Happy, I'm Afraid.... the list goes on and on," he told China Daily. And he, better than most, should know. In his youth Clifford studied with the renowned Marcel Marceau, then with the Pantomime company of the great French Mime.

"My version obviously is not a literal recreation of the film on stage. This could not work for so many reasons, and why should anyone try and recapture the magic of Bogart and Bergman when the film is perfect as it is?"

Instead Clifford's approach is to make Casablanca a completely unique theatrical experience. It is not a Broadway Musical, opera, classical ballet, or straight play. It is all of them.

"There are state-of-the-art visual and sound effects, and no expense has been spared by Warner Bros in the area of production values," he said.

Clifford also said he has the extreme good fortune to have the song As Time Goes By, the musical theme which runs through the entire film, and will be the love theme of the live-stage version.

"I hope the Chinese audiences will enjoy all of our efforts and I have every confidence that the basic message of Casablanca, which is love, honor, forgiveness, and sacrifice, will be easily understood by all," he said.

But whether or not the stage version succeeds has yet to be seen. For some, Casablanca without Bogart and Bergman can never be Casablanca.

But Clifford is also confident of his performers -- Giuseppe Picone, the principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, as Rick and Simona Noja, principal dancer with Vienna State Opera Ballet, playing Ilsa.

"Noja and Picone are international stars who are also fantastic, beautiful actors. This is why I chose them," said the director and choreographer.

"You will see that it is by their actions, not just their dancing, that this love story will be made crystal clear."

Both dancers admire Bogart and Bergman, but will attempt to stamp their own mark on the work.

"I will certainly interpret the role inspired by Bogart and try to be as good as him. But at the same time I will also give my tips to the new role," said Picone, a strikingly handsome Italian.

The principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre will be a classically dashing Rick -- very different to the rough-hewn Bogart.

As for his opposite number, Romanian-born Noja, she said: "Everybody identifies the role of Ilsa with Ingrid Bergman. She gave something to the film that none of her American colleagues could give -- the European touch of her interpretation."

Asked whether her performance could match that of Bergman, Noja replied: "Only Ingrid Bergman can play as good as Ingrid Bergman! A film is different than a performance. You can watch it and watch it, it stays the same ... only the audience changes. But a live performance has something unique! The emotions, the movements take place only at that moment and in that place. Each performance is a new performance!

"The difficulty of this performance is to bring to the stage my interpretation of the role of Ilsa in such a way that it will stay in the hearts of the audience as strong as the film."

Of the actual role, Noja said: "Ilsa is a beautiful part to be interpreted. She has the ardor of youth, the knowledge of a devoted student and the passion of a woman in love. It is a lot of material to work on."

Besides the strong cast, the crew have much to contribute.

The composer Clyde Allen has done a remarkable job in keeping all the songs and musical material from the original film, including As Time Goes By, George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Cole Porter's Begin the Beguine.

In addition, Allen has composed some beautiful original additional music.

(China Daily March 28, 2005)

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