by Alix Cohen
“In the dark times will there also be singing? Yes, there will be singing about the dark times.” Kurt Julian Weill (1900-1950)
As narrated by The Guide, (Brian Charles Rooney), Berlin to Broadway is a musical voyage through Kurt Weill’s most prominent musical theater work from 1920 Germany, to immigration (later, citizenship), and success on Broadway. Distinguished by impassioned social observation/comment, the work is often poetic and complex. Timely revival points out shuddering similarities between social turmoil at the early part of his oeuvre and now.
We open with excerpts from The Threepenny Opera (Bertolt Brecht/English version Marc Blitzstein) which arrived in New York before its composer. (Weill and wife, performer Lotte Lenya, disembarked in 1935.) That which became his best known show closed to mixed reviews after 13 performances. “…oh, you can’t just let a man walk over you…” emerges the crie de coeur in “How to Survive.” Rooney oozes across the stage. Both match, mezzo Rachel de Benedet and soprano Meghan Picerno compete for the affections of Mack the Knife. De Benedet gives us a ripping “Pirate Jenny.”
Out of Happy End (Bertolt Brecht/English version Michael Feingold), we hear baritone Michael Halling- oddly sounding throughout like a tenor, and tenor Karl Josef Co perform the resonant “Bilbao Song,” whose bitter resignation has recently been aired in several cabaret shows. De Benedet sinks her teeth into “Surabaya Johnny” sliding octaves with finesse.
The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, a political satire banned by the Nazis (Bertolt Brecht English version Arnold Weinstein) begins with the company draped over chairs and stools: In the golden city of Mahagonny, there is no contentment…Consequences? “Alabama Song”: Oh, moon of Alabama /We now must say goodbye/We’ve lost our good old mama/ And must have whisky, oh, you know why…Halling is committed, aware of lyric content. Co seems chirpy.
“I Wait for a Ship” from 1934’s Marie Galante (Jacques Deval/English version Alice Baker/ Gene Lerner) is a musical precursor to the iconic “My Ship” –Ira Gershwin from Lady in the Dark. Picerno warms the theater with finely honed, operatic skill. De Benedet’s “The Saga of Jenny” exemplifies the vivacity and wit of the latter show in its mischievous take.
A patriotic Johnny Johnson (Paul Green) opines: “We’ll never lose our faith and hope and trust in all mankind.” Co’s dulcet “Hymn to Peace” drifts down like a feather. A recording by FDR evokes spontaneous audience applause. Later, this show’s Director, Pamela Hunt, calls it particularly “cathartic.” The phrase “How Can You Tell An American?” (Knickerbocker Holiday –Maxwell Anderson) acts as a call-out between Act II selections, each time noting the many, many nationalities that made this country great. Also from that show, we’re treated to Halling’s sincere, reflective rendition of “September Song.”
Rooney’s churlish version of “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” (One Touch of Venus– Ogden Nash): Tell me is love still a popular suggestion/Or merely an obsolete art…showcases the performer’s extraordinary range and theatricality, Picerno’s “That’s Him” from the same show exhibits endearing animation, Co’s “Lonely House” (Street Scene– Langston Hughes) is simply lovely, the company’s deftly arranged “Lost in the Stars” (Maxwell Anderson) is poignant with sentiment. A clever encore finds the multifaceted cast singing a verse of “Mack the Knife” in German.
Director Pamela Hunt does a splendid job of varying the visual while embracing style and attitude.
Berlin To Broadway began at Yale Repertory Theater in 1972/73 when Michael Feingold’s translation of two earlier pieces by the composer met with success and he was approached by those who had the rights to a Weill revue. “His widow Lotte Lenya went over it line by line and note by note,” Feingold wryly comments in the talkback. “I learned a lot about tactics.”
In The York Theatre version, orchestration for 7 is reduced to piano and melodica by its excellent Music Director Eric Svejcar, whose feeling for the material and expert musicianship alone is worth a ticket.
The show is illuminating, entertaining, and alas, politically apt.
Photos by Ben Strothmann
The York Theatre Company presents Musicals in Mufti
Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill: A Musical Voyage
Through February 19, 2017 http://www.yorktheatre.org
Next: Dear World February 25-March 5