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Culture

The Great Pretenders

Berlin is home to serious culture vultures, but the city’s top private production isn’t a heavy opera or play. Rather, Germans are flocking to a Vegas-style show featuring some of the world’s best doppelgangers.

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Viva Las Vegas in Berlin

Backstage at Berlin's Estrel Festival Center, Melissa Totten toys with the platinum blonde curls on her new custom-made wig. "Just this morning, my hair was this same color," she says, running a hand through her own hair, which has now been dyed a darker, caramel blonde. The wig will make it even easier to transform herself into her alter ego, Madonna. Not that the transformation is difficult. Totten bears a striking resemblance to the "Material Girl."

Madonna-Double

Looks like the real thing -- Melissa Totten as Madonna in "Stars in Concert"

Later, when Totten performs "Express Yourself" dressed in a replica of the infamous Jean Paul Gaultier-designed "cone" corset, it's easy to forget you're watching an impersonator.

"What I've heard people say is there are lookalikes in Europe, but they're not on the level where they're singing live, playing instruments, dancing, and doing everything," says Totten, who has been "doing" Madonna for 10 years. "When people see our show, they're seeing the best of what they can see."

Winning formula

Totten is a regular in "Stars in Concert," which has been running at the Estrel for eight years. Producer Bernhard Kurz -- the man credited with first bringing musicals such as "Cats" and "Phantom of the Opera" to Germany -- has clearly hit on winning formula.

Tom-Jones-Double

Tom Jones impersonator performing at the Estrel Hotel

"Stars" has a continually rotating line-up of six performers who each do their own set. Even repeat customers -- of which there are many -- can count on seeing new acts, which range from Tom Jones and Louis Armstrong to Celine Dion and Whitney Houston.

But when Kurz first introduced "Stars," he had no idea the show would still be going strong today.

"He brought the idea for 'Stars in Concert' directly from Las Vegas, and the aim was to have the show for one year," said press spokeswoman Mihaela Djuranovic. "It's the kind of success no one really predicted at the beginning."

The doppelganger concept encountered a certain amount of skepticism at first, Djuranovic says. There wasn't much of a tradition for such entertainment in Germany, and people tended to lump it in with karaoke. The performers are aware of this, but see it as their job to win Germany over, one show at a time.

"Some people take it as a joke, have a laugh and say, oh, they're just impersonators, but there are actually a lot of talented people in the business," says Grahame P. Doyle, the Elvis of "Stars in Concert."

He should know. In the world of showbiz impersonators, being Elvis is possibly the biggest challenge of all, due to the extraordinary amount of competition.

"There's a lot of Elvis impersonators -- maybe as many as 40,000 around the world," says Doyle. "But if you break it down to the handful that give you goose bumps, those that truly bring respect to his character, then you can knock off about 95 percent of those people."

Elvis-Presley-Double

"Jail House Rock"

Tough audience

Doyle is one of the more sought-after Elvis doppelgangers. He performed the Las Vegas circuit for seven years before producer Kurz could finally lure him to Berlin. It was a radical change, says Doyle, but a welcome one.

"Berlin is laid back and chilled, and Vegas is about getting your party on," he says. "There, you have to walk through casinos to get to work. It's a completely different atmosphere. And because Vegas is so loose, the audience responds that way too."

Berlin audiences, on the other hand, are much more reserved, the performers say.

"We were always told when we first came to Berlin that Berlin was the toughest audience in Germany," Totten, alias Madonna, says. "They're very proper, but they're also very respectful. I love the way people dress and come to the show, and they have great things to say afterwards, so I think they appreciate it and we appreciate them."

Riding on the success of "Stars" in Berlin, Kurz opened a second venue for the show in Essen, western Germany, in 2003. And it doesn't stop there. Adapting the concept, Kurz is also behind tribute shows to particular artists or groups such as the Beatles, Abba, and the Blues Brothers.

In the land of Goethe and Wagner, it's not intellectual, nor does it aim to be. As Djuranovic says, "It's just good entertainment."

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