Russ Hunt's Reviews

Berlin to Broadway: A Musical Journey with Kurt Weill
book by Gene Lerner

Theatre Saint Thomas
February 2003

The genre represented by Berlin to Broadway, Gene Lerner's compilation of Kurt Weill's greatest hits, is not one I usually like very much. To wrench a song out of its dramatic context and put it in a quite different one always seems to me to weaken it; and to put it in a context where the point isn't any longer the original effect of the song, but the appreciation of the genius of the composer, invites a kind of judgemental approach (well, is this song as good as the last one? Is it better than songs by some other writer?).

That may be some tiny part of the reason I was so astonished and pleased by the wonderful evening Theatre Saint Thomas has created on the basis of Lerner's concept. Weill's songs are indeed transplanted into new contexts, but they generate so much momentum and emotion on their own, that it doesn't matter. Further, organizing it around a sort of history of Weill's career, a quarter century that moved from the Berlin of the twenties to the Broadway of the postwar forties, gives the songs a narrative context that serves many of them as well as the original setting.

But the main reasons the show is a triumph are local. Everything about it -- the set, the lighting, the music, the direction, the ten actor/singers -- is absolutely appropriate. It's as though these people, this space, and this moment had found exactly the right script to use their talents to the utmost. In no particular order, then . . .

The set, cobbled together out of leftovers from previous productions, could hardly be better. On entering the Black Box, you're confronted with what looks a lot like the jib of a sailing ship. behind it is a complex of vaguely dock-like structures, with decking, rope railings, and spaces at various levels; and then behind it all, six feet or so above the main floor, is a large square-rigged sail (which, it turns out, can be rolled up like a curtain or serve as a screen for projections). It's an interesting, exciting, flexible space, full of vaguely nautical feeling but -- like the settings of the plays we most immediately associate with Weill, the ones he did with Bertolt Brecht -- really no place in particular. There's no set designer credited in the program, so I suspect it was a collaboration between director Leigh Rivenbark, technical director John Barlow, and lots of other people. It's one of the most striking and effective sets I've seen in the Box.

The lighting design, by Chris Saad, is everything we've come to expect of his work: effective, subtle, brilliantly timed. I was particularly impressed by the moment when War -- lit brilliantly in red, with machine gun fire and frenetic racing about of what seemed like dozens of soldiers (but was really only three) -- is suddenly transformed into Aftermath, with cold, green, clinical lighting on the dying in the sudden silence. It's worth noting that the back projections on the "sail" -- for instance, the sudden apparition of a huge swastika -- are clear, brilliant, precisely timed and effective.

All of Leigh Rivenbark's growing skills as a director of musical productions are evident here, as well, perhaps most obviously in the timing of the whole show. Only twice during the evening did I for an instant wonder what was coming next: the segues from one song to the next (sometimes narrated by various member of the cast, sometimes just hinted at) were tight and swift, never letting the tension slacken. The entire space was used, from the regular entrances down the dock/boardwalk from the side door, to the raised platform under the "jib" to the complicated set of risers and platforms under the sail. The cast was everywhere in the box, all the time, and, it seemed, everyone was exactly where she was supposed to be, and knew why she was there, both as actor and as character.

One of the challenges of setting songs generally is creating business for characters to have to act as backdrops -- here, for instance, the prostitutes in the city of Mahagonny: up on a platform while someone else is singing, what do you do to look like a prostitute? There are only so many facial expressions and body positions, and it can easily become woodenly repetitious. This almost never happens during this show: actors are focused and deeply into their roles, wildly varying as they are, in each scene, and we're never distracted by, for example, the women broadcasting devastation as their men ship off to the wars.

In many ways, of course, the point of the whole evening is Weill's astonishing music. Lisa St. Clair and Mike Doherty, impersonating an entire house band with piano, keyboards, and Doherty's astonishing collection of other sound-producing items, produce a setting that's as polished and confident as any theatre music I've heard. And the ten members of the cast inhabit Weill's unexpected, complicated, and tricky music with a remarkable, professional authority. This is not easy music, not least because it sounds as though it ought to be easy. Weill's genius -- especially in the early, Berlin-based shows -- was to take popular music and make it edgy, startling, new, to turn clichés inside out, to end songs where no one had ever ended them before, to take Brecht's complicated, darkly ironic language and echo its irony. All ten singers -- the cast is much larger than the show was written for, but there's never a sense of overcrowding, and there's not a weak link on stage -- not only hit the notes with authority (some of the notes are extremely hard to hit), but also, and at the same time, project with words with a clarity that I found astonishing. For Weill, it seems clear, the words were what it was all about, and this cast gives us the words.

Because -- as is often the case in Theatre St. Thomas productions -- what's important is the ensemble rather than the individual, it's not very much use to pick out specific people as particularly effective: all ten are strong singers, focused actors, and disciplined ensemble members. There are moments that stick out in memory: the change in Maureen Batt's face as she goes from desolation that her boyfriend has enlisted, to joy that he's enlisted, in the space between two bars of music; the wonderful, gratutiously gymnastic rope-swinging of Mike Hickey (and his Gary Cooperish, arrogant-and-at-the-same-time-self-effacing grin in "How Can You Tell an American"); Sarah Jeffries' magnetic, dynamic presence as the introducer and ender of the show (yes, she stumbled over Lotte Lenya's name, but she didn't let it affect her performance); Tony LePage's evil grin as he flashes MacHeath's knife, and on and on.

One of the most interesting things about the evening -- and part of what gave it a level of structure that most revues of its type lack -- was the way we could sense the growth and change in Kurt Weill's art. The music of the first half of the show -- all written as part of his long collaboration with Bertolt Brecht -- is the more challenging, memorable, and important. Weill changed the way all of us hear, and especially the way we hear music in theatre: before him, no one ended songs this way, no one used these peculiar harmonies and strange syncopated rhythms; after him, we can have Stephen Sondheim and Leornard Bernstein and Mark Gribben's Sweeney Todd and Jonathan Larson's Rent (and even Meredith Willson's The Music Man, which I heard presentiments of a couple of times). After Weill's arrival in New York, though, partly because there was no longer a Brecht to collaborate with, the songs become less political, more personal, less darkly and dissonantly ironic and more directly emotional. Compare "Pirate Jenny" with "Speak Low" or "Surabaya Johny" with "September Song" and you can feel the mellowing, the personalization, perhaps even the Americanization of Weill's art. What is especially impressive about Theatre St. Thomas' production is that the musicians give full value to both: oddly, the "Characters Incorporated" straight ahead polish which infuses many of the actors' performances contribute to the way Weill's early songs undercut just that slick wholesomeness, and the way the later ones use it in the service of political satire. Songs like "How Can you Tell an American" and "Progress" have an eerie resonance in the milennium of the stock market meltdown and the War on Terrorism, and the cast's polish brought them across brilliantly.

And then there are the just plain lovely bits, highlighted, perhaps, by the long, thoughtful silence at the end of the wonderful "Lost in the Stars."

Many of these people have worked together before; they're beginning to form a musical and dramatic community. This show feels like the perfect occasion for that community to hit its stride. Now, maybe we can get another Brecht-Weill show and test their dramatic ability as well? In the meantime, don't miss this one.

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