Many people taking their seats for the first time at WNO’s Lost in the Stars may wonder at the production’s stark and formidable stockade, lit but darkly. The leader of the Chorus enters and acts as Magician and Stage Manager, raising a few of the set’s steep side panels with a wave of his hand and motioning the ensemble on, who obey with solemn dignity.
A hush falls in the Eisenhower Theater, and we understand in an instant director Tazewell Thompson’s intention to feature the chorus as storytellers, their music the glue of the work in order that Alan Paton’s seminal and heart-wrenching story of South Africa, Cry the Beloved Country, shine through.
The Chorus fills the stage and confronts the audience with the first number. Chorus Leader Sean Panikkar’s voice, arresting and strong as his physical presence begins the piece, conjuring South Africa’s kloof, the lovely hills, and the titihoya bird. But the song shifts halfway through from gorgeous lyricism and images to the condemning vision of man’s greed and lack of stewardship of a land that has been pillaged and degraded.
The prescience of composer Kurt Weill and writer Maxwell Anderson left me gasping about our own continued complicity in the destruction of our environment. The story speaks so eloquently and tragically to our times in WNO’s production on the Eisenhower Stage, it is a testament to the revelatory power of Lost in the Stars.
In great part this is due to WNO’s key partners who helped launch the important hybrid “Broadway opera” or “musical tragedy.” Francesca Zambello initiated a collaboration with Cape Town Opera, and the original cast included fully half of its members from South Africa when the work was first presented before joining the season at Glimmerglass Festival in 2012. The South African singers continued “in residence” that summer to collaborate and enrich not only this production but the whole “campus” of Glimmerglass. Truth to tell, I not only missed those individual performers but the authentic urgency that the original African singers brought to the piece.
Some of the key players did return to be part of the Washington production, and, if possible they were even more terrific by the years of “seasoning” of this piece. In addition to chorus leader Panikkar, whose work is so emblematic of this production, there are Wynn Harmon (James Jarvis) and Eric Owens (Stephen Kumalo,) who carry the central dramatic conflict as a pair of fathers, one White Afrikaner, and the other an Anglican Black minister. Owens gives us the emotional heart of the story and what he must go through in every performance reveals not only a powerful singer but an ever more talented actor who can access and share his deepest and most conflicting emotions. His work in this role has grown to be both breathtakingly human and tragic in heroic proportion.
In some ways, Harmon has an even trickier role as the racist caught up in the values of the apartheid system. Weill has given him no songs and so his “why” can’t be lifted out lyrically by the performer, yet the actor manages both to enrage us and get our sympathies as a blind victim of his times. I cannot imagine the music-theatre piece without these three consummate artists.
The story traces the journey of a simple Black minister from his poor but tight-knit rural community to the city of Johannesburg, where society’s rules have broken down, and where desperate means beget tragic urban outcomes. Unwanted pregnancies, children born into families without fathers, crime, and violence have become the norm. In this crowded metropolis, the devout Stephen Kumalo searches for his missing son. His optimism gets shaken when he discovers the unthinkable, that his son has got caught up in the cycle of violence and committed murder. The confounded Kumalo stutters, “But this man…” – for the victim was Arthur Jarvis, James’ son and his friend, a man who has broken with the norms of his race and whose life has been shaped by sympathies with the Blacks living in South Africa’s system.
There have been some important changes from the Glimmerglass production. If I remember rightly, the Black and White members of the company there were more starkly divided throughout the show. The singing was almost exclusively handled by the Black singers. The Whites were relegated to “acting only.” The shift in the Washington production with the acting and particular Choric singing roles shared not only beefed up the choric sound but made even more clear Thompson’s vision of the work being one of shared storytelling. It also demonstrates Zambello’s commitment to producing true cross-over work, for which Weill’s piece is a challenging and thrilling example.
If I missed the South Africans in the original cast, I applaud that Thompson and Zambello cast several local singer-actors in the roles. These performers represent major acting “chops,” and it confirms that Washington actors can share the stage and more than hold their own with world class opera singers.
Dawn Ursula as Kumalo’s wife brings depth and pathos to the role. Manu Kumasi as the Kumalos’ son is a tragic figure both created and destroyed by a corrupt system of inequality. Kevin McAllister, who portrays John Kumalo, foil to both the characters of his brother and nephew, and Sean-Maurice Lynch, who plays John’s son, are both charismatic performers and also lethal in their ability to demonstrate how cynicism and hate can create a different kind of victimization and “lost” souls. Paul Scanlan as Arthur Jarvis conveys beautifully the conflict of a White man who faces ruptured family relations and censure from his White community to work for a new South Africa freed from the onus of its political system based on racial inequality. Thomas Adrian Simpson uses a reedy English accent to convey the Judge and, in his short court scene, quite remarkably defines the caste differences amongst the South African Whites.
Jarrod Lee and Aaron Reeder, two of the fine ensemble, are two strong musical talents, and I predict we shall be hearing much more of them for their beautiful voices.
Bravo also to all the children in the cast – Caleb McLaughlin, Tyler Bowman, and Caitlyn McLaughlin – who steal our hearts with the honesty of their performances and the multiple talents in singing, acting, and dancing.
A great standout performance must be credited to Lauren Michelle, who plays Irina, Absalom’s pregnant girlfriend. Her character gets the most operatically written “arias,” and Michelle’s singing of “Troubled Man” and the exquisite love song in the second act, “Stay well,” reveals a singer of pure radiance. Her acting abilities, portraying the young woman’s vulnerability and deference to her future father-in-law in her first scene then building both in power and heartbreak as she is torn forever from making a life with Absalom and their child, moved me very deeply.
When all these forces came together under Conductor John DeMain’s commanding understanding of this quintessential American blend of musical forms, the sound in the production is thrilling. The enrichment of the experience by adding heft in the string section created such value to Weill’s score. Oh, for a recording!
There are very few if any missteps in this operatic tragedy but I was disappointed that the ever popular Broadway belt number by the character of Linda didn’t bring down the rafters. Perhaps it was the staging, leaving the bar room context too far upstage for the character of Linda to interact specifically and intentionally with the other “locals.” Rather than steamy sexual innuendo, we got instead generalized strutting and grinding.
But this is a mighty work of music-theatre work that should be seen in Washington. Eric Owens singing the stirring “Lost in the Stars” at the end of Act I and Thompson’s altered ending where every man, woman and child in the opera gather to pray and begin the messy, uncomfortable process of reconciliation as the chorus reprises a few bars of the anthem “Cry the Beloved Country” are just two reasons this production must be experienced in its short run here.
Lost in the Stars . Music by Kurt Weill . Book and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson . Conducted by John DeMain. Stage Direction by Tazewell Thompson . Cast: Eric Owens, Wynn Harmon, Lauren Michelle, Sean Panikkar, Manu Kumasi, Cheryl Freeman, Kevin McAllister, Caleb McLaughlin, Jeremy Villas, Dawn Ursula, Sean-Maurice Lynch, Tyler Bowman, Leah Hawkins, Jobari Parker-Namdar, Thomas Adrian Smith, Ian McEuen, Aleksey Bogdanov, Paul Scanlon, Aaron Reeder, Jarrod Lee, Jade Wheeler, V. Savoy McIlwain, Michael Mainwaring, Rexford Tester, Caitlyn McLaughlin, Jessica Lauren Bell, Aleksey Bogdanov, Jane Bunting, Alexandra Christoforakis, Cheryl Freeman, Leah Hawkins, Jocelyn Hunt, Courtney Kalbacker, Michael Mainwaring, Ines Nassara, Musa Ngqungwana, Alizon Reggioli, Ameerah Sabreen, Duyen Washington. Lisa Williamson, Rachel Zampelli .
Set and costume design: Michael Mitchell . Lighting design: Robert Wierzel . Hair and makeup design: Anne Ford-Coates . Assistant director: David Carl Toulson . Dialect coach: Gary Logan . Stage Manager: Laura R. Krause. Produced by Washington National Opera . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.