Give My Regards

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.

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Jim Lillie

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