As scripted by Gene Lerner, the format includes a Guide, here played by the personable singer and actor Brian Charles Rooney, who leads us through Weill’s theatrical life from Germany, to Paris, to New York and Broadway covering all of Weill’s musicals except for the Broadway failure of The Firebrand of Florence. Justin West’s well-chosen slide projections set the mood for each of the shows. The rest of the fine cast of singing-actors is made up of tenor Karl Josef Co, mezzo Rachel de Benedet, baritone Michael Halling and soprano and opera star Meghan Picerno, with Rooney occasionally joining in on some of the musical numbers. Working from the full scores, musical director Eric Svejcar does yeoman service turning the piano into a full orchestra, though at times his superb playing overpowers the singers.
The first half of the evening is mainly devoted to the German Weill and his collaborations with playwright Bertolt Brecht. This resulted in the enduring Threepenny Opera (1928), performed in the English version by composer Marc Blitzstein, Happy End (1929), translation by critic Michael Feingold, and the opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930), in the Arnold Weinstein version. The social criticism in these works that concern corruption, hypocrisy and poverty is still pungent.
As Weill and his wife singer-actress Lotte Lenya were both Jewish, it was necessary for the couple to flee Berlin and the Nazis in 1933. This section also includes the hit song from the one show that Weill wrote while in Paris, “I Wait for a Ship,” to lyrics by Jacques Deval of Tovarich fame, from the now forgotten Marie Galante, hauntingly sung by Picerno. Aside from iconic “Mack the Knife” from The Threepenny Opera, sung by the quartet, this section includes the “Barbara Song,” “Surabaya Johnny” and “Pirate Jenny,” stingingly sung by de Benedet, and Happy End’s catchy “Bilbao Song” and “Mandalay Song,” sung by the men.
Once Weill reached New York, he sought out Broadway’s best, and the chameleon-like composer created a new, more American sound with all of his new collaborators. Each of his projects was on a different theme and had different enviable talents at work: Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights Paul Green and Maxwell Anderson, Oscar-winning lyricists Ira Gershwin and Alan Jay Lerner, and poets Langston Hughes and Ogden Nash. In the short period of time from 1936 – 1949, Weill wrote eight stage shows for Broadway, almost all of which broke new ground in the American musical theater.
After arriving in New York, Weill wasted no time arranging for his first Broadway musical: the anti-war Johnny Johnson (1936). Co gives fine renditions of “Hymn to Peace” and “Johnny’s Song” (lyrics by Paul Green.) His second show and one of two with playwright Maxwell Anderson – whose plays were in verse – was the political satire, Knickerbocker Holiday, about the days when Peter Stuyvesant ruled Old New Amsterdam with an iron hand. The quartet demonstrates how timely “How Can You Tell an American” has become once again in the Trump Era. Baritone Halling gives a memorable reading of the now classic, “September Song.” This is followed by the first musical about psychiatry, Moss Hart’s Lady in the Dark. De Benedet, with the help of Halling and Co, turns “The Saga of Jenny,” written for Gertrude Lawrence, into a delightful specialty number from the witty pen of Ira Gershwin. Opera singer Picerno wraps her high soprano around the haunting and haunted, “My Ship.”
Weill’s One Touch of Venus (1943), a satire on the suburbs, was his only collaboration with poet Ogden Nash and satirist S. J. Perelman. Three romantic ballads made a nostalgic segment: the quartet singing the eerie “Speak Low,” Rooney with the clever “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” and a lovely rendition of “That’s Him,” sung by Picerno. The 1948 Love Life, the history of marriage in America, has been forgotten, but in its day was considered the first concept musical. The men had a boisterous time with Alan Jay Lerner’s scintillating lyrics for the soft-shoe number, “Progress.”
Weill’s last Broadway shows turned darker and more operatic: the tenement tragedy Street Scene, from the Pulitzer Prize drama by Elmer Rice, and Lost in the Stars, from Alan Paton’s novel Cry the Beloved Country, about apartheid in South Africa. The bluesy, “Ain’t it Awful the Heat” (lyrics by Langston Hughes), is presented by the quartet, while “Lonely Town” is given a memorable rendition by Co. From Weill’s last show before his untimely death (even as he was planning a stage musical based on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) are Maxwell Anderson’s stirring, “Cry, the Beloved Country,” sung by the quartet, and the title song forcefully sung by Halling backed up by the others. The evening ends with the unfamiliar “Love Song” from Love Life, and the suitable “Happy Ending.”
One of the remarkable things about the theater songs of Kurt Weill is that like the later songs of Stephen Sondheim they are all really little one act plays which give the performers a great deal of latitude in how to perform them. As sung by Karl Josef Co, Rachel de Benedet, Michael Halling and Meghan Picerno and as narrated by Brian Charles Rooney, Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill is an extraordinary musical voyage through some of the greatest theater songs of all time written by among the best talents of the 20th century.
Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill: A Musical Voyage (through February 19, 2017)
Musicals in Mufti
York Theatre Company at St. Peter’s, 619 Lexington Avenue, entrance on East 54th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-935-5820 or visit http://www.YorkTheatre.org
Running time: two hours and ten minutes including one intermission