LISTEN TO MY SONG: KURT WEILL’S THEATER MUSIC
National Jewish Theater
Stripped-down concept revues, in which only the setting connects the songs, seek to highlight a composer’s attitudes and preoccupations. Flexible and uneditorializing, they efficiently collect their songs into a show that refuses to impose a chronological, biographical, or thematic grid. Such shows, which have no narration or cute byplay between the singers, mean to showcase the strengths of the songs and to contrast their content by linking them in the most direct and immediate way.
In National Jewish Theater’s tribute to the late Kurt Weill on what would have been his 90th birthday, Listen to My Song: Kurt Weill’s Theater Music, Sheldon Patinkin departs from traditional anthology shows like the popular Weill revue From Berlin to Broadway. Patinkin keeps the lyrics intact but, culling songs from 11 Weill musicals, lifts them from their original context and rearranges and reorchestrates them. Musical director Kingsley Day has provided rich, subtle, and fairly faithful settings for his supple five-person combo.
With almost no spoken dialogue to set up the songs or flesh out the characters, it’s hoped the 42 selections will flow spontaneously from one to the other to create a self-contained conversation, patterns of juxtaposition sparking a sort of enlightenment by association.
Patinkin and his codirector, Estelle Goodman Spector, have assembled a piano player (Day himself) and seven open-ended types–Woman I, Woman II, the Young Man, the Wanderer, etc–in a hot bar on a warm day in a mythical American town. John Murbach’s set is minimal and self-effacing. These types connect only through the songs, as one selection triggers a melodic memory or rhythmic rebuttal. The characters speak only the language of Weill’s music–jazzy, bluesy, and effortlessly melodic. The selections run a fine gamut, from the sexy intimacy of “Here I’ll Stay” to the vaudevillian soft shoe of “Progress” to Andrews Sisters bebop in “Economics” to the mock macho militarism of “The Cannon Song.” (Weill’s French work, like Marie Galante, is not represented, and for a big change, you won’t hear “Mack the Knife.”)
This show highlights Weill’s range–the songs alternate between fear and hope, anger and anticipation. Note the contrasting ship metaphors in Pirate Jenny’s vengeance aria, from 1929’s The Three Penny Opera, and the forgiving and lyrical “My Ship,” from 1941’s Lady in the Dark. There’s a sharp contrast between the proletarian fury of Three Penny Opera’s first-act finale, “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” and the gentle optimism of “Johnny’s Song” from Johnny Johnson. And compare two bad-luck songs, the jaunty, ebullient “There’s Nowhere to Go But Up,” from Knickerbocker Holiday, with a brutal survivor song, Mahagonny’s “Deep in Alaska.”
The trouble with this long Listen to My Song is that we have to listen too much and too fast. The songs come at us so quickly and with so little preparation that they seem to pour from an overactive jukebox. And unlike a concert, there’s no breathing space between them. So it’s hard to make any but the most transient, subconscious connections before the next song hits you. It’s tricky enough for a regular musical to make songs flow from plot, let alone from each other–but when out-of-context songs converge from different musicals, with no pauses that refresh between them, it makes for an embarrassment of riches.
You also have to wonder whether two songs written 20 years apart and for very different shows could really be expected to contradict or complement each other. Perhaps it’s enough just to let the songs sing for themselves.
But to do that, the performances must really make up for the lack of dialogue. Here they mostly do, but not everyone shines consistently. In the first act, Donna Jerousek seemed to be warming up, her voice metallic in an overly peppy version of Lady in the Dark’s cautionary “The Saga of Jenny.” But by the second act she’d come into her own, giving a pile-driving rendition of the little-known “Susan’s Dream” from Love Life. Jerousek has the makings of a major belter.
It helps that, of the seven performers, three are skilled actor-singers–in that order of talent. Weill benefits from the rough energy of a passion that defies technique. Theater wizard Ross Lehman hurls himself into “The Sailor’s Tango,” solidly suggesting the ballad’s cocky fatalism, and his oily “Wouldn’t You Like to Be on Broadway?” is worthy of the seducer in Porgy and Bess, Sportin’ Life. Kate Buddeke resorts to a forced fury halfway through “Surabaya-Johnny,” but she sings it as if she’s lived it; her “Pirate Jenny” is all the stronger for its raw edges. Frank Farrell does a terrific job with the tongue-tying tour de force “Tchaikowsky,” from Lady in the Dark; and his “Johnny’s Song” and “September Song” radiate unforced serenity.
Though less experienced, the four singer-actors can milk a song for most of what it’s worth. A coming talent, Brian Herriott beautifully relives Weill’s superb torch song “It Never Was You,” from Knickerbocker Holiday; his heartfelt treatment of Street Scene’s “Lonely House” captures the Edward Hopper-esque isolation that Weill and lyricist Langston Hughes gave it: “The night for me is not romantic / Unhook the stars and take them down.” Herriott’s “Wooden Wedding” sardonically deflates marriage myths.
Aisha deHaas has a tendency to get tight and lose volume in her upper register, but in a securer range (as in “My Ship” and “Sing Me Not a Ballad,” a rare excerpt from Weill’s comic operetta The Firebrand of Florence), she provides the bittersweet kick Weill needs. Jerousek may lose the desperate edge of “Foolish Heart,” but her youth works well in the hopeful “One Life to Live.” Gary Lowery moves confidently from the intimacy of “Speak Low,” a near-perfect duet with deHaas, to the awe-filled resignation of “Lost in the Stars,” Weill’s sublime song of wonderment.
Kingsley Day’s coaching has made the ensemble singing, best in the second act, this show’s strong suit. In numbers like the women’s haunting “Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife” and the opening and closing “Johnny’s Song,” you believe these seven singers are meant to share the same stage.
After having asked too often the question most appropriate when watching a musical–“Why are they singing at us?”–it’s a joy to remember at evening’s end that, even though this show doesn’t always provide an answer, Weill’s music does.