Goodman Theatre

The problem with South Africa is not that the white man has broken the old tribal system, says the minister Msimangu in Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the Beloved Country. The problem is that he has not built something worthy in its place.

The same could be said of Goodman Theatre’s new version of Paton’s famous book. Having initially planned to mount a revival of Lost in the Stars, Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill’s 1949 “musical tragedy” based on the novel, director Frank Galati decided instead to fashion his own adaptation, using the Weill-Anderson songs as it suited him. But having dumped the old script, Galati hasn’t come up with anything better. His production is not a total failure–it’s dignified, intelligent, sometimes visually interesting, and faithful to its source. But it comes to life sporadically at best, and gets grindingly tedious by the end of its nearly three-hour running time. Its reverential pageantry drains rather than enhances the story’s impact, and its elegant theatricality carries all the moral authority of your parents telling you to finish your steak because children are starving in Africa. And its most useful accomplishment–acquainting audiences with Weill’s beautiful but neglected final score–is of questionable value because of the liberties Galati and musical director Edward Zelnis have taken with the music.

Published in 1948, just before the Afrikaner-dominated Nationalist government launched its policy of apartheid, Cry, the Beloved Country was inspired by Paton’s observations of the youths he presided over as principal of the black Diepkloof reformatory. Paton sought to alert his white countrymen to their culpability in the issue of black crime–to its roots in poverty, oppression, and their disruption of the black family. He tells the story of a black Anglican preacher, Stephen Kumalo, who travels from his rural parish to Johannesburg in search of his sister and his son. Finding the sister has become a prostitute, he takes charge of her little boy. Worse, he finds that his own son, Absalom is a thief who recently murdered a man during a robbery; ironically, though the victim was a white advocate for racial equality, his death fuels an antiblack backlash. After Absalom is executed, the grief-stricken Stephen forges a delicate friendship with James Jarvis, the father of Absalom’s victim, a plantation owner. Thus the tragedy leads to renewal, though Paton’s idealism is guarded: “But when that dawn will come,” the book concludes, “of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.”

The book, suffused with concern for the moral and spiritual, rather than political, implications of racial injustice, was a perfect fit for Anderson and Weill, who had wanted to write a black-themed musical for at least a decade. An earlier project, “Ulysses Africanus” (some of whose songs were recycled in Lost in the Stars), had fallen by the wayside because its intended star, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, was contractually committed to Mike Todd’s all-black Hot Mikado.

Cry, the Beloved Country appealed to Anderson in part, it must be noted, because he was more comfortable addressing racism and poverty in other countries than at home (feelings shared today by some of Chicago’s leading theaters). His play is woefully dated, riddled with creaky liberal platitudes, clunky dramaturgy, and a naive feel-good ending that differs sharply from the novel’s uncertainty.

But despite its flaws, Anderson’s script at least has a spark of drama. It introduces the audience much earlier than does the book to Jarvis and his liberal son, thus sharpening the parallel between them and Stephen’s family. It gives Absalom’s bride a name, rectifying somewhat the novel’s perfunctory treatment of female characters. And it heightens the character of Stephen’s nephew so that he comes to represent the future of South Africa–a future that could be shaped by loving compassion or vengeful hate.

Most important, Lost in the Stars has a lead character who sings. This choice was dictated not by Anderson or Weill–who originally intended to assign all vocal music to a Greek-style chorus that commented on the action–but by Rouben Mamoulian, the director, whose previous musical-theater credits included the landmarks Porgy and Bess and Oklahoma! He understood that Stephen needed songs to express his emotional journey from assurance to doubt to despair to tentative hope. Thus, though Weill’s choral music is magnificent–composed in a distinctive style that blends Hebraic, Native American, German expressionist, and jazz hallmarks–the show’s high points are Stephen’s solos. These include “Thousands of Miles,” whose arching melody, suggesting an African American spiritual, reinforces the lyric’s assertion of “the pathways of the heart” as the road to racial reconiliation, and “Lost in the Stars,” an eloquent, strangely ambivalent classical-blues ballad mourning God’s apparent desertion of his poorest children. These are immensely moving songs when sung by Stephen at key moments in his story–and when sung by a baritone whose richly rounded voice conveys moral authority.

But in revamping the music for his version, Galati makes the very mistake Weill and Anderson avoided: here Stephen, played surprisingly weakly by Ernest Perry Jr., is sung at by a Greek-style chorus but never sings himself. While not fatal, this choice is crippling: it robs the show of a tragic hero whose quest demands our attention and leaves Stephen a passive, not very compelling character. (It also disregards the work’s intentions; the Goodman Theatre is lucky that the Kurt Weill Foundation, founded to preserve and promote the composer’s legacy, didn’t shut the show down before it opened.) Reassigning these songs to the chorus distances us from them–especially because of the way Galati schlepps his rich-voiced but anonymous ensemble around the stage into one politely arranged tableau after another. Chorus leader Kingsley Leggs and Darius de Haas as Absalom, to whom Galati reassigned Stephen’s main songs, sing very well by today’s pop-Broadway standards but are thin and shallow compared to the folk-opera quality Weill had in mind. Meanwhile, La Chanze’s jarringly strident belting of “Trouble Man” and “Stay Well,” the two ballads sung by Absalom’s bride, ruins their lyrical beauty, especially in the insistently up-tempo pace forced on them by conductor Zelnis. (For a sense of how this music should sound, listen to the superb new recording of Lost in the Stars conducted by Julius Rudel for MusicMasters Classics.)

Surely mindful of the show’s length, Galati keeps the action–and the stage pictures–moving briskly but rather aimlessly against the dominant visual element, an expansive, canvaslike cyclorama upon which lighting designer James F. Ingalls plays a series of colors to suggest the changing seasons; the result is almost surrealistic, and one scene looks incongruously like a Magritte painting. As it happens, this scene is one of the few in the play that is actually effective: a final encounter between Stephen and the elderly Jarvis, played by William J. Norris. Here, sitting in a leaky chapel on the occasion of Absalom’s execution, the two old men covertly, hesitantly address their shared sorrow and the frightening future their nation faces. It’s a direct, touching moment of human confrontation, played by actors who have dug into a 40-year-old literary text and made it their own.

Would there were more moments like it in this awkward hybrid of performance-studies tableau and misunderstood musical. Certainly the time is right for a new look at this text. The weekend I went to the show, South African president Fredrick de Klerk and opposition leader Nelson Mandela made a joint U.S. appearance while their representatives hammered out the date for next year’s election, which stands to undo the fascist system that swept in the year Paton’s novel was published. The image of South Africa in 1993 is strangely like the one Paton envisioned–two old men, one white, one black, warily reaching out to each other. Though to recognize the truth of his prophetic warning–that the only hope for his country “is when white men and black men, desiring neither power nor money, but desiring only the good of their country, come together to work for it”–one hardly need travel thousands of miles.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.