A Woman Who Knows What She Wants is a musical comedy from 1932 by Oscar Straus. Who? Oscar Straus, Viennese composer who fled to Hollywood after the Nazi annexation of Austria. He dropped the second ‘s’ from his surname so that nobody would confuse him with any of the other famous musical Strausses. Wise move.

Dagmar Manzel and Max Hopp © Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de
Dagmar Manzel and Max Hopp
© Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de

The piece feels from the beginning like it might have been written by an exceedingly precocious child. Here we have musical froth of the highest order. If you can imagine an undiscovered PG Wodehouse story set to music by Cole Porter, you wouldn’t be far off. The plot being a cavalcade of coincidences and misunderstandings, there is a certain rampant energy required to keep the tension taut. That energy is certainly not lacking in Barrie Kosky's production.

The show contains around twenty different characters but only two singers, and so naturally there is a lot of running around and wig-swapping. This activity quickly becomes the central focus of the piece (well beyond the story itself). Dagmar Manzel and Max Hopp share the roles with maniacal wit and comic timing, switching age, gender and class with the greatest of ease... often playing two roles each at the same time!

The story revolves around Manon Cavallini, a celebrated singer of operettas, who is being courted by a young fan named Raoul Severac. Though Cavallini is attracted to Severac, she palms him off onto a young girl named Lucy Paillard who turns out to be the singer’s daughter. The love-match eventually crumbles through mistrust, but that’s not much reason for concern here. The driving theme appears to be “follow your heart to find true love, and if that doesn’t work just have an affair”. In the interest of equality, extra-marital flings are recommended for both sexes!

Dagmar Manzel and Max Hopp © Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de
Dagmar Manzel and Max Hopp
© Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de

But everything ultimately rests on the quality of the tunes and there are, without doubt, bags of affecting songs contained in this 90-minute extravaganza. The knockabout nature of this farce affords little time to dwell on the beauty of the voice or the depths of the human condition. Acerbic lyrics are provided by Alfred Grünwald, based on Louis Verneuil’s original.

Kosky’s simple set – a single swing door in the centre of the stage – allows for all comings and goings with the minimum of fuss. It’s a far cry from his genius production of Castor et Pollux, but an elegant solution to a thorny problem.

Dagmar Manzel and Max Hopp © Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de
Dagmar Manzel and Max Hopp
© Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de

The orchestra sparkled under the baton of Adam Benzwi, with the uncredited pianist glimmering in his or her mercurial solo passages. Like a frolicking porcelain dog A Woman Who Knows What She Wants is an amusing curiosity to momentarily tickle the senses. However, for all its twee nonchalance there was a notable moment that exposed the sour side of 1930s – the casual, jocular use of the N-word (amid chuckles from the audience), which tacitly provided the answer to the nagging question “why don’t they stage rare stuff like this more often?”