Experiencing Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill is like taking a remarkable journey across time and space, encountering some of the great literary giants of the 20th century and colliding with a few of that century’s major events. All this comes to the audience through the eyes and music of the extraordinary Kurt Weill, something of a chameleon in his music as in his life.
The workmanlike book of this musical stitches together chronologically the creative life of Weill, starting in the 1920’s in Germany in what would become an outstanding partnership with Bertholt Brecht. Weill abandoned a career in classical orchestral composition to form an association with the playwright, and together they created a new experimental theatre style.
Informed by socialist ideals swirling in Germany during those volatile and darkening times that marked the rise of Hitler, they forged works that included The Threepenny Opera, Happy End, and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, all before Weill was thirty. While Weill and Brecht considered themselves serious theatre makers, not cabaret artists, their songs have become staples of the cabaret scene and popularized standards with songs like “Surabaya Johnny”, “Mack the Knife”, and “Alabama Song”.
Escaping Germany for Paris (not, as it happens in the text with his wife and singer-actress Lotte Lenya, who at that time was living with another man), he later reunites with Lenya, and they sail for New York to a country that would claim his talents and his heart. The America of Roosevelt and Truman represented to Weill political, social, and artistic freedom. On Broadway, and with multiple literary partners to share in this playground, Weill continued to push boundaries of musical genres and styles as he conquered the “Great White Way.”
The cast that brings you the show was much stronger in the second “American” act than in the German period with a few exceptions. I will attribute some of the first act problems to opening night jitters. Some of the voices sounded tight, and the blending of ensemble singing was not totally satisfying. Added to this, when singer-actors are nervous there is a kind of generalized “musical gesturing” that can come off as amateurish.
I learned or re-learned an important lesson about delivering a song watching some of them struggle. If a singer waits to color a line emotionally on the words themselves, it’s too late and the words become a wash. Watch a singer’s eyes not her mouth, and see if the thought is taking place in the pause and on the breath before the line. If the singer is tracking, the thought is seen in the eyes first, the breath changes, the line is authentically charged, and she carries us with her.
Alexandra Linn is marvelous at thinking through a song moment-to-moment and sharing that experience. When she and the others sang “Mack the Knife,” it was as if I heard the song for the first time. She looked over her shoulder, veiled her eyes, blinked with vulnerability, tried to summon courage, and filled the space with her dread of the creepiness of a dangerous man on the lose with a knife. (So what were Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin thinking?)
Director Abel Lopez has staged many of the numbers to feature what we might call a Brechtian style of delivery, strongly grounded, somewhat defiant, and often staring straight into the eyes of the audience. In Linn, we have someone who embodies the style fully. Her rendition of “Pirate Jenny” from Threepenny Opera was terrific. It helps that she has a voice that can spit out words in what I call a Brecht-Weill “wall blast” and also move fluidly from sprechstimme to sustain a big, round, lyrical sound. This is a young singer who deserves to be seen on Washington stages a whole lot more.
The “guys” in the cast, Ashley Ivey, Steve Lebens, and Jase Parker did some fine work in the men’s group songs such as “Mandalay Song.” Additionally, Ivey carries the narration as a combination “Guide” and Kurt Weill stand-in. With his little black book, as if from journal entries, he refers to events in Weill’s life and gives us a strong physical reality to ground the character.
Nonetheless, before intermission and Ivey’s announcement that Weill “leaves for America, his new country and spiritual home,” I felt myself a little at sea.
Then, Wow! When Act II started, things were energized and focused, and all the singers seemed more abandoned and emotionally connected to their material.
From Ivey’s energetic sprint across the stage, describing his landing in New York and finding his way up the City to the St Moritz Hotel and then seeing the view from the twenty-second floor only to dash back down on the street, the scene was terrifically real, and I was captivated and moved by Weill’s unfolding story.
The song “How Can You Tell an American” provided a through line, and we were treated to vivid portraits of some Americans from the eyes and ears of an immigrant. Karen Enriquez O’Connell joined Linn and together socked it to us with a rendition of “Saga of Jenny” which was fabulous. Where was that voice, Miss O’Connell , in Act I? Brava. O’Connell was also delightfully impish and compelling in “That’s Him,” a song that suited her to a “T.”
Special mention must be made how Producer Carla Hubner and Director Abel always manage to honor material in whatever its original language. Special kudos then that we heard some of Brecht’s songs in German. Sally Martin did an especially nice job with this, using a clean German pronunciation, notably in “Barbara’s Song.” Sally also did well singing French in “I Wait for a Ship” with lyrics by Jacques Deval.
Steve Lebens garnered some musical “plums” in Act II, and his “September Song” was both phrased and supported to give his voice an added richness. He, Ivey, and Parker pulled off a crowd pleasing number with “Progress” which, with references to “panic,” “recession,” and “crash,” sounded dangerously-yet-deliciously close to current events. These guys had fun, and in Parker, we have a fabulous dancer, who slipped in a soft-shoe. More, please. More dance, more Parker.
Parker moved us to what was the emotional climax of the evening with “Lonely House.” I found myself at the edge of my seat, when notions of song, singer and interpretation melted and I was in the grips of an emotional experience that demonstrated music-theatre at its best. In the Langston Hughes scripting of a Black man’s experience, Parker gave us both his vulnerability and his rage.
Director Abel still has a job with this show to keep energy from plummeting between songs, and the different lung power the singers possess makes this a particularly tricky proposition. Music Director Paul Leavitt does an admirable job with Weill’s music, and he is ably supported by Paul Aebersold on accordion and Ephriam Wolfolk on bass.
Berlin to Broadway
Closes March 10, 2013
1835 14th Street, NW
Approximately 2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $19 – $38
Fridays thru Sundays
The cast in the In Series rose to the level this work demands, and everyone gave their emotional commitment to communicating the heartbreak of author Alan Paton’s work about South African apartheid. The medley of “Train to Johannesburg”, “Cry the Beloved Country”, and “Lost in the Stars” grabbed the audience so profoundly that we sat spellbound in the atmosphere that music evokes and forgot to clap.
It is a treat and honor to get Kurt Weill in any package. In this, Music Theatre International’s most comprehensive (and expensive) packaged “musical voyage” of Weill, we are very lucky indeed. Thank you Carla and In Series for providing us this opportunity.
Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill . Music by Kurt Weill . Lyrics by Bertholt Brecht, Maxwell Anderson, Ira Gershwin, Ogden Nash, Maxwell Anderson, Alan Jay Lerner, Paul Green, Langston Hughes, Mark Blitzstein, and Michael Feingold . Text and Format by Gene Lerner . Directed by Abel Lopez . Music Direction by Paul Levitt . Featuring Sally Martin, Ashley Ivey, Steve Lebens, Alexandra Linn, Karen O’Connel & Jase Parker . Produced by The In Series . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith .