WASHINGTON, March 5, 2013 – The In Series’ latest cabaret/revue—“Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill: A Musical Voyage”—is a rare opportunity to catch a considerable amount of this highly individualistic composer’s more popular music in a single evening. Beginning his career as a serious composer of serious music like his contemporary Erich Korngold, Weill serendipitously became one of the original “crossover artists” when he started composing for musical theater.
His second identity served him in good stead when he, like Korngold, was forced to make a speedy exit from German territory, which was rapidly degenerating into a killing ground for German, Austrian, and European Jewry as the Nazis tightened their political grip.
Both Korngold and Weill ended up, fortuitously, in the United States, with Korngold gravitating toward writing for the movies, while Weill discovered his own personal nirvana on Broadway. Both found success here as well, although both died tragically young: Weill at 50 and Korngold at 60.
Obviously, “Berlin to Broadway” exclusively highlights, in song and narrative, the musical career of Kurt Weill in an imaginative, impressionistic, evocative manner. This In Series presentation marks the first time that the series has acquired the rights to an established New York show, with the original version having been launched there back in 1972.
The show’s musical selections are all by Kurt Weill in collaboration with some of the best writer-lyricists who ever lived, including Bertolt Brecht, Maxwell Anderson, Ira Gershwin, and—believe it or not—noted humorist and poet Ogden Nash. The audience gains perspective on the passage of history and the evolution of Weill’s career via a narrator, or “Guide” as the script describes him. Nicely underplayed by Ashley Ivey, our Guide—who occasionally seems to morph into Weill himself—fills in the missing links, facts, and figures on Kurt Weill’s strange and interesting journey through music, art, politics, and what some might call today “social justice.”
The first half of “Berlin to Broadway” belongs to the dynamic duo of Weill and Brecht. Both were fervent socialists, and both were responsible for twisting the opera and operetta form and format into something far more dark, twisted, sexual, and cynical than any of their operatic successors—save perhaps Richard Strauss in Salome—had ever dared to that point.
The Weill-Brecht duo is well represented in this revue, which includes notable songs and set pieces from The Threepenny Opera, Happy End, and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, none of which receive as many performances today as they deserve, largely again, we suspect, due to their crossover nature, combining classical elements with cabaret, show tunes, and vaudeville.
Of the three, Threepenny Opera is clearly the best known, largely due to its signature tune, Mack the Knife, which even today is almost universally recognized. The strange “Alabama Song” from Mahagonny is also reasonably familiar, while the nasty, satirical, and oddly catchy “Bilbao Song” and “Surabaya Johnny” from Happy End, which this reviewer has never had a chance to hear live in its entirety.
The cast began the material in the first act somewhat tentatively, but soon got into the spirit of Brecht’s acid-tipped lyrics and Weill’s weird, insistently rhythmic music, including repetitive chords and progressions that often reach beyond the extended tonality explored by composers as diverse as Scriabin, Korngold, and Zemlinsky. For the uninitiated, this is strange stuff indeed, seemingly rooted in African rhythms while very nearly anticipating the insistent beat of rock music which had yet to be invented.
Highlights of Act one included the ensemble’s slippery rendition of “Mack the Knife;” the initial performance and later reprise of the “Useless Song” by Jase Parker and Ashley Ivey; the sinister pairing of “Bilbao Song” and “Surabaya Johnny” as performed by Steve Lebens and Mr. Parker in the former and by a quietly expressive Sally Martin in the latter; the rousing, chorus-like “Mandalay Song” as performed by Mssrs. Ivey, Lebens, and Parker; a nifty all-hands performance of the “Alabama Song;” and a powerfully felt interpretation of “Pirate Jenny” by Alexandra Linn.
Act II migrates to America, away from Brecht, and possesses a lighter touch, almost as if, with the weight of Nazi oppression lifted from his shoulders, Kurt Weill began to see some of the sunnier side of life on this side of the Atlantic, the Great Depression notwithstanding. Notable performances in this half include the memorable Weill-Anderson hit, “September Song,” sung with nuanced passion by Steve Lebens; the jazzy duet, “Saga of Jenny,” sung enthusiastically by Karen O’Connell, Alexandra Linn and the ensemble; and “Speak Low,” sung by Mr. Lebens and the ensemble.
Some of this show’s most unusual highlights included Jase Parker’s stirring, angry rendition of “Lonely House,” from Weill’s folk opera Street Scene—last heard in this area a number of years ago when it was given a first rate Filene Center production by the Wolf Trap Opera Company; and an almost unintentionally ironic, happy, and patriotic rendition by the ensemble of “How Can You Tell an American,” a song that detail’s the average American’s once-legendary lack of respect for government authority.
That once-common attitude here has been turned on its head in recent years in a way that’s more in tune with Weill’s original politics, so this song’s happy, jingoistic lyrics seem paradoxical today, and well worth a discussion after the show at one of 14th Street’s increasingly popular watering holes.
The show closes on something of a downer, with songs derived from the late Weill musical, Lost in the Stars, which hovers obsessively around the then very-real apartheid issue that was finally beginning to tear South Africa apart. The brewing conflict was compellingly described in Alan Paton’s stunning 1948 novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, which formed the basis for this show, and Maxwell Anderson’s lyrics for its songs are hard hitting and challenging. The songs, as well, indicate that Weill had never really lost his attitude toward the heroism of the oppressed, challenging his audiences to the last.
Directed sparingly by Abel Lopez, this intriguing show was further enhanced by the absolutely spot-on performance of pianist and show music director Paul Leavitt who performed heroically and masterfully throughout, demonstrating his incredible yet understated grasp of Weill’s complex musical idiom. He was assisted by bassist Ephriam Wolfolk who added depth to the melodic lines while serving, quite effectively as a subtle percussion section as well. Icing on the cake was the smooth, effortless performance of Paul Aebersold on the accordion, an instrument that provided the perfect backdrop to Weill’s cabaret-style numbers as well as mood setting background music prior to the actual performance itself.
Rating: ** ½ (Two and one-half stars out of four.)
“Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill: A Musical Voyage,” wraps up Sunday, March 10 at Source, 1835 14th St. NW. For tickets and information, call the box office at 202-204-7763 or visit the In Series’ website here.
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