People like to look upon Kurt Weill as a cut above the average Broadway composer, almost as if the art form is distasteful.
But although Weill himself described Street Scene as ‘An American Opera' and wrote of his desire to create a new integrated form that would represent high art on the American stage, we know full well that the latter part of his career was devoted mostly to trying to write nothing more or less than a hit Broadway show.
And though William Thornhill's essay in the programme for The Opera Group's new production of Street Scene promotes the idea that Weill looked for playwrights rather than established lyricists and book writers when writing his stage works, it's also true that one of his biggest hits, Lady in the Dark, has a book by Moss Hart and lyrics by Ira Gershwin, both of them veterans of the Broadway musical comedy.
I'm afraid that although The Opera Group's mounting does it few favours, Street Scene is already hampered on paper by a book by Elmer Rice (based on his 1929 play) that fails to control the plot in such a way as to give rise to the lyric moment with a scene-clinching tactic. The first act alone is an hour and a half long, yet at least a third of that duration could probably have been cut, had Rice had a greater understanding of the light touch required of the genre. The story is simply too insubstantial for the show's excessive length. Weill, too, is to blame for writing in a rather expansive, verbose manner too much of the time. In an attempt to portray the story's varied dramatis personae in a vivid way, he employs a range of musical styles, both high and low. But while we might detect Straussian enharmonic shifts and orchestral effects in some scenes or jazzy Broadway pastiche in others, for me Weill neither rises to the level of Strauss' sumptuous operatic palette nor produces the ease, the magic stardust, of a Richard Rodgers number. In my book, at least, a sordid tale of murder, drunkenness and adultery in a New York tenement of 1946 requires grit and immediacy, but I'm not sure this is delivered by Weill, Rice or lyricist Langston Hughes.
Admittedly, Hughes fared the worst in The Opera Group's presentation, simply because the large majority of the words were inaudible. Wonderful as it was to have a fairly large orchestral ensemble playing the lavish score, in the intimate setting of The Young Vic they just drowned out the unamplified singers. The latter weren't helped by the nature of the theatre, either, with its in-the-round layout inevitably causing constant problems when the actors had their backs to some part of the audience. I truly believe that with amplification, the experience would have been a lot more engaging, but as it was, it left me entirely cold.
John Fulljames' production was perfectly adequate, even if Dick Bird's almost non-existent set – two fire escapes behind which the orchestra was seated, with distracting visibility – meant that the atmosphere of New York during a heatwave wasn't really evoked. Arthur Pita's choreography, too, unavoidably made little impact because there wasn't much stage space. Perhaps a big show like this needs a bigger ensemble and theatre? However, even allowing for the acoustical issues, there is little excuse for such poor diction or such half-hearted accents. Since the piece is about cultural clashes between Jews, Poles, Italians and the Irish, all living in the same block, it's important that the characters register as coming from these differing countries. But most of the actor-singers make such a mess of their accents that the distinctions aren't as constantly obvious as they should be.
There were some potentially excellent performances in the show, with Andrew Slater projecting and singing strongly as the drunken Frank Maurrant, John Moabi enjoying his jolly Broadway number as Henry Davis and Adrian Dwyer giving a powerful turn as Sam Kaplan. Elena Ferrari's Anna and Ruby Hughes' Rose were also of note, and most of the others at least had moments where they shone, even though none of them really overcame the battle to be heard. I really don't blame conductor Patrick Bailey for the problem, because the orchestra played with verve and sensitivity towards the score; indeed, for me this was the strongest aspect of the night.
Overall, then, the opportunity to hear Weill's score was welcome, but compared to the National's staging of Lady in the Dark or Opera North's One Touch of Venus, this was very disappointing.
Previous reviews of musical theatre:
Arabian Nights on Sepia Records
The Music Man at the Chichester Festival
Candide at ENO
Betwixt! The Musical at the King's Head
My Fair Lady Original Broadway Cast on Naxos
Gypsy on Broadway with Patti Lupone
Funny Girl at the Chichester Festival
Kismet at ENO
On the Town at ENO