These days, musical blockbusters are marked by their star-studded casts, syrupy storylines and truckloads of extravagant scenery.
That's why a fifty-year-old ensemble piece like Kurt Weill's Street Scene seems destined to remain mothballed under layers of critical and scholarly acclaim. But in Central City Opera's version, director Michael Ehrman's character-driven approach, a host of fine performances, a jazzy score and a magnificent set all breathe vibrant life into Weill's 1947 Broadway work.
The show is based on Elmer Rice's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1929 play; all of the action takes place on a street fronting a New York City tenement house. Exquisitely designed by David Harwell (and subtly illuminated by lighting designer David Jacques), the drab brownstone looks as though it's a few sewer covers north of Manhattan's gritty Hell's Kitchen area. On the eve of the Great Depression, the district was a mix of mostly immigrant families struggling to eke out a meager existence while maintaining tradition and order. The blighted urban maze was a tough place to live, sure, but families--not yuppies and drug dealers--formed the neighborhood's basic infrastructure. As Weill's "dramatic musical" (with lyrics by poet Langston Hughes) unfolds over the course of a sweltering summer day, city dwellers young and old fall in and out of love, give birth to newborn babes and hatch grand philosophical ideas. They strike up impromptu ice-cream festivals, kick up their heels like jitterbugging fiends and yearn for a more bucolic life. Along the curbside, they swap dozens of yarns and decry the treble scourges of free love, birth control and loose women. And, near the play's end, they witness a jealous rage culminate in murderous tragedy.
There are no Pepsodent-smile kick-line numbers or easily hummable theme songs in Weill's eclectic score--just a couple of sublime choruses, a handful of heartrending arias and some exuberantly staged group songs. Nor is there one larger-than-life central character (except maybe Harwell's richly detailed set) on whose shoulders the bulk of Rice's dramatic action rests. Instead, the story's shifting tides of passion are given full expression by the tumultuous comings and goings of more than 35 singing actors, shepherded by a quartet of shared protagonists.
As in the CCO's frothy Die Fledermaus, the company is led by former apprentices who've returned to assume principal duties: Karen Burlingame portrays devoted daughter and aspiring actress Rose Maurrant; Theodore Green plays bookish, all-around good guy Sam Kaplan. Their voices soar with heartfelt feeling during the duet, "Remember That I Care"; later, the pair of "best friends" also jerk a few tears as they sing, "Now love and death have linked their arms together" after the demise of Rose's mother. Burlingame, in particular, proves just as authentic during scenes of spoken dialogue, crossing her arms and casting her eyes heavenward as the grief-stricken Rose murmurs, "Some things I think you have to face alone." And although Sam the dreamer seems melodramatic by today's standards (especially when the budding Trotskyite rants about there being nothing in life but "Pain, brutality and strife until we die"), that fervor arises more from the playwright's hyperbole than from Green's bold interpretation. Indeed, the plucky tenor imbues Sam's moving aria, "Lonely House," with an intriguing mixture of eloquence and droll humor as he observes, "Funny you can be so lonely with all these folks around."
The demanding roles of Rose's warring parents, Anna and Frank Maurrant, are superbly rendered by veteran singers Kay Paschal and Marc Embree. Although she's occasionally overpowered by conductor John Baril's otherwise resplendent orchestra, Paschal exudes Anna's aching desire and boundless capacity for affection during the whole of her lengthy aria, "Somehow I Never Could Believe." And the dynamic soprano manages to locate Anna's wistful heartache during "I Tried to Be a Good Wife to Him," accepting--however unfairly--blame for her failed marriage as she declares, "Sometimes I think it would be better if I was dead." Minutes later, Paschal negotiates another of Anna's hairpin emotional turns when she heaps motherly praise on her son, Willie (Steven Mudd). Beaming with joy that seems heaven-sent, she gently sings to him, "Somebody's going to be so handsome/Somebody's going to make me so proud" as daughter Rose gazes admiringly from the apartment building's doorway. As Anna's embittered husband, Embree embodies Frank's stubbornly proud, bellicose way with others, grumbling that the world would be a better place if things were like they used to be, "Safe and Sound." The song turns out to be a piece of bravado--one that rings hollow when Frank discovers his wife and lover together and decides to murder them both. In a scene that's rivetingly staged by Ehrman, Embree summons near-primal rage while haltingly confessing, "It might not look like it to you/But I loved her, too" to his family, the police--and us. It's not the easiest of Hughes's lyrics to sing convincingly, but Embree pulls it off with aplomb.
All of the supporting actors convey their characters' idiosyncrasies without overly emphasizing the quaintness of Thirties slang. With her droopy eyes alternately casting suspicion and contempt, Joyce Campana seems born to play stoop-gossip Emma Jones--especially when she spies the flirting Rose and purrs, "You have plenty of admirers, Miss Maurrant, but you seem to come by it naturally." As Russian immigrant Abraham Kaplan, Gene Scheer is properly indignant about American social conditions but stops short of inciting an International Workers of the World rally. Christina Harrop and Curtis Olds dance their way into audience members' hearts with a thrilling rendition of "Moon Faced, Starry Eyed." Bursting with joy while proffering ice-cream cones to his neighbors, Jonathan Green is pure confection as Lippo Fiorentino, as are apprentices Lori Trustman and Katherine Rohrer, who impersonate a couple of Salvation Army girls in Act One and a pair of warbling nannies in Act Two. And several members of the Colorado Children's Chorale add sparkle to the sometimes dreary goings-on. All of which makes Weill's period drama a moving examination of the recurring familial conflicts that, these days, at least, are often reduced to the lulla-babble of celebrified Broadway.
But even though the Great White Way hasn't always been the most hospitable place for musicals of character and substance, it's often served as a high-profile and inspirational starting point for shows that find success elsewhere. In fact, following a 1993 New York revival of She Loves Me, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's charming work received numerous stagings locally, including last season's solid effort by Boulder's Trouble Clef Theatre Company. The ever-popular piece is also the opening production of this summer's Colorado Lyric Theatre Festival, which is being held at the Imig Music Building on the CU-Boulder campus. Nicely staged by veteran director William Mooney (with Valorie Goodall) and inventively choreographed by Marilyn Cohen, the 1963 musical, which is based on Miklos Laszlo's play Parfumerie, proves to be a reliable smiler.
Demonstrating a remarkable flair for the score's quirky nuances and majestic melodies, the cast of mostly student performers introduces us to the employees and customers of a Paris perfume shop ("Good Morning, Good Day"). Bringing to mind the lanky frame and earnest demeanor of Jimmy Stewart (who starred in a film version of Laszlo's play, "The Shop Around the Corner"), Stephen Horst is more than endearing as salesman Georg Nowack. His crystal-clear romantic tenor blends nicely with the silvery soprano of Donna Lee, who plays Amalia Balash, a new shop employee who carries on a written correspondence with an anonymous pen pal. She falls in love with "Dear Friend," only to learn upon meeting him that he's actually Georg. While constantly exchanging snippy comments and befuddled glances, the two lovebirds craft a believable relationship that's undergirded by good humor and old-fashioned vulnerability. Lee delivers exceptional renditions of "Will He Like Me?" and "Vanilla Ice Cream," while Horst's spirited take on the title song is enjoyable. As Ilona Ritter, the Miss Lonelyhearts sort who gets stiffed by one-time flame and full-time heel Stephen Kodaly (ably played by Stephen Soich), Cynthia Spalding shines during "I Resolve" and "A Trip to the Library." And Charles Koslowske's turn as a sarcastic head waiter, coupled with the antics of a strong-voiced chorus, provide plenty of comic enjoyment.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Still another Broadway motif creeps into the Lyric's other summer offering, The Elixir of Love. Capitalizing on such enduring hits as The Music Man and The Rainmaker, directors Mooney and Goodall have transported Gaetano Donizetti's 1832 comic opera about a con man and his magic medicine to turn-of-the-century River City, Iowa. Thus, Donizetti's country peasant, Nemorino, becomes young farmer Tim Morino (Jason Baldwin); itinerant medicine man Dr. Dulcamara becomes red-bearded huckster Dr. Duke Almara (Stephen Soich); and dashing military sort Belcore becomes Sergeant Bill Corey (Gregory Gerbrandt) of the local Rough Rider regiment. Retaining their Donizetti-given names are wealthy landowner Adina (Catherine Clark) and, taking an Anglicized spelling, the peasant girl Jeanetta (Beth McDowell).
Set designer Jesse L. Guess's backdrop of pastel houses and cobalt blue skies and costumer Tom Robbins's wondrous earth-toned fashions lend a pie-in-the-sky air to Mooney's workable Midwestern adaptation. In fact, Mooney and company's down-home approach remains faithful to the essence of Donizetti's greatest popular success while injecting it with refreshing abandon. Apart from straining for some top notes, all of the principals carry off their roles well enough, and the chorus of workers, soldiers and young maidens form a cohesive ensemble of distinct personalities. Mooney even weaves in some sober commentary with mirth and frivolity: It's slightly uncomfortable, for instance, to witness Dr. Almara literally wrap himself in the American flag as the townsfolk blithely pledge allegiance to the superficial pitchman. A few lyrics get lost amid the animated activity now and then, but conductor Robert Spillman manages to hold things together and shapes the singers' efforts into an artful, entertaining whole. It's a pleasant outcome that, thankfully, evokes the allure and magic of old Broadway without using a simulated natural disaster, a parade of cartoon characters or a slew of puppets to get the job done.
Street Scene, through August 8 at the Central City Opera House, Eureka Street, Central City, 303-292-6700. She Loves Me and The Elixir of Love, presented by the Colorado Lyric Theatre Festival through July 31 at the Imig Music Building, CU-Boulder, 303-492-8008.