BOSTON — FEW musicals are as potent as the sources from which they were drawn. It has something to do with pausing for music, and asking the audience to accept that people naturally break into song at opportune moments. Musicals tend toward platitudes and sentiment, and this often gives them a featherweight quality.
More ambitious is "Lost in the Stars," an adaptation by composer Kurt Weill and playwright Maxwell Anderson of the groundbreaking 1947 novel by Alan Paton about racial struggle in South Africa, "Cry, the Beloved Country." Here, two well-meaning white liberals, products of post-World War II optimism, tried to put together a musical tragedy of epic proportions.
Recently, African-American director Bill T. Jones tested the musical's validity against its inspired source and found it wanting. Under Mr. Jones's guidance, however, the Boston Lyric Opera production culled as much as could humanly be found in Anderson's text, and succeeded in both addressing the discrepancies between it and the novel and surpassing them.
The story is rich with dramatic possibilities: A young black man leaves the village where his father is pastor and goes to Johannesburg to find work. Instead, he finds bad company. During a robbery, the young man kills the liberal son of a white landowner. The black man admits his guilt and repents, but he is sentenced to death. None of his father's prayers can avert his punishment. Eventually the two anguished fathers meet, and for a single moment they step outside the constraints of their society.
Jones's choices and designer Tom Hennes's sets heighten the drama. Huge portraits hang suspended over the rough-hewn wooden platforms and steps grouped on the stage. The portraits include an African boy, a crude tin shanty, and a child wrapped in blankets.
The director uses his chorus as commentary, threading undercurrents of despair, fear, and futility into the fabric of the musical. Weill's choral pieces are by far the most interesting music in "Lost in the Stars." In the chilling song, "Train to Johannesburg," the chorus sings, "White man go to Johannesburg, he come back, he come back. Black man go to Johannesburg, never come back, never come back." It drives home the awful fact of the disruption of black home life by white authorities.
A second powerful choral number called "Fear" occurs after the white man is killed. With security police hunting through the streets and white citizens hurrying to lock their doors, the sense of fear and helplessness reaches its zenith. As the song says, "The fear of the few for the many" is the paramount concern among many whites in South Africa.
Throughout the production, Jones - a choreographer and dancer by training - restrains his use of movement. His intent is to let the text and music speak and to move straightforwardly through the action. But special Jones touches are evident: Several dancers from his company spice up the crowd scenes by performing native African-inspired dance steps, striking their heels to the floor to create the kind of percussion missing from the score.
Working against Jones, however, was the acting ability of his cast. Anderson's words sometimes slip close to sing-song poetic silliness, and the acting singers struggled hard to find their own way into the text. Many didn't make it.
Robert Honeysucker, the Boston-based singer who played the Rev. Stephen Kumalo, managed his role with dignity, compassion, and a gracious formality. His singing was sincere, soulful, and perfectly matched to the needs of the musical.
The production's ending shows Jones's single most effective decision as director. Instead of having the murdered man's father embrace the black preacher in enlightened friendship, which is called for in the Anderson script, Jones chose a different gesture. Determining that the two men could hardly break so quickly with their old prejudices, Jones has the white landowner stoop down to pick up the black man's hat where it has fallen. It is an action both humane and hopeful, much like the novel that inspire d it.