How curious that this has become a landmark year for revivals of Kurt Weill operas. The Metropolitan Opera has mounted "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" while the New York City Opera has given people a crack at "Silverlake." As it turned out, neither work was the most compelling thing ever written, though it was good to have a chance to appraise "Silverlake," which was considered lost for so many years. Nevertheless, one felt saddened that so much time and money had gone into an inferior work, when "Threpenny Opera," the team's indisputable masterpiece, goes unproduced in New York.
But this Weill revival is not altogether the first flurry of activity the music -- particularly the work done in collaboration with Bertolt Brecht -- and that wave reached something of a peak when the Yale Repertory Theater gave the US premiere of "Happy End" in 1972. The production has recently been revived as part of the introductory year of Robert Brustein's American Reperory Theater (ART) at Harvard University's Loeb Drama Center.
It is not necessarily top drawer Brecht-Weill, but it is marvelously entertaining, and, more to the point, the Brechtian soapbox is surprisingly restrained, and the Brecht-Weill songs exceptional. In this show, we get three of the very best -- "Surabaya Johnny," "The Bilbao Song," and "The Sailor's Tango." "The Mandalay Song," and "The Ballad of Lilly" are more than mere also-rans as well.
The text is not the most trenchant, but Brecht wrote only the lyrics, leaving the play itself to his secretary, Elisabeth Hauptmann, and perhaps for that reason is it relatively free of the stultifying didacticism that scuttles such monstrously dated creations as "Mahagonny." As translated and adapted by Michael Feingold, the evening has a free and easy lilt, a beguiling rhythm, a natural style. Set in gangland Chicago, it deals with Lt. Lillian Holiday (Halleluia Lil') of the Salvation Army and her encounter with gangster Bill Cracker. She meets him, discovers he is very simpatico, and tries to "save" him. Intertwined with this major plot are subplots concerning the gang and its leader, the nefarious Fly, who has a contract out on Bill Cracker. The Salvation Army introduces us to several sanctimonious sorts, the gang to several mendacious ones.
The ART production is superbly acted, well sung, and exceptionally well directed by Walton Jones. He keeps the action simple, tight, and clean and exploits every possibility of Michael H. Yeargan's two-level set that rises from beneath the stage. William Armstrong's handsome lighting and William Ivey Long's costumes enhance the flavor and period feel of the show (though what a BIC pen is doing in Sister Jane's hands in 1919 Chicago is anyone's guess!)
The cast is uniformly excellent, with particularly fine characterizations from John Bottoms as Dr. Nakamura, Max Wright as Bob Marker, and Carmen de Lavallade as Major Halcyon Stone. As Cracker, Kenneth Ryan exudes just the right braggadocio. Marilyn Caskey not only acts Lillian with touching simplicity, but sings her songs with pure heartache and devastating idiomatic style. Berlin to Broadway
More Weill was to be heard in one of New England's better regional companies, Theater by the Sea in Portsmouth, N.H. Hampshire. A restropsective entitled "Kurt Weill: Berlin to Broadway" had opened out of town in Boston in the early 1970s under the title "September Song" and went on to some success Off-Broadway in New York. It presents, in the framework of a narrative, a more or less chronological survey of the best of Weill, European and American.
The device of having an actor (Michael Davis) become Weill himself is annoying, and the cast in Portsmouth was not up to the company's usual standards. Then again, director Jack Allison appeared stymied by the striking, steep, deep stage space of the theater the company has just completed and moved into this season. Nor was he able to get his performers to meld in style as a viable quartet, particularly Claudine Cassan, who seemed interested only in an erratic display of raw energy than in control or real style. Nor did anyone have a sense of the very distinctive Weill idiom -- surprising, considering that Allison is resident director of the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera.
So, though it was nice to hear so many exceptional Weill songs, it proved to be more interesting to explore the company's new home, which, like the stage space, is dramatically deep and steep. Sightlines appear to be excellent (except, perhaps in the front row) and there is a refreshingly open feeling that allows for good rapport with the stage. The stage offers a challenging but versatile working area that should easily encompass the company's repertoire. So even if the last show of the TBS season was not representative of its best, the home is a dramatic improvement over the cramped space in which TBS performed in the past.