By Donna Herman
Do you love Kurt Weill? Don’t know Kurt Weill from Kurt Cobain? Doesn’t matter. If you’re interested in musical theater, quick get a ticket to Berlin to Broadway With Kurt Weill: A Musical Voyage. It’s playing a limited engagement only until February 19th as part of The York Theatre Company’s “Musicals in Mufti” Series. Berlin to Broadway With Kurt Weill: A Musical Voyage is a 1972 review of Kurt Weill’s musical theater work. The first act covers his more familiar European musical theater works with collaborator Bertolt Brecht. Like “Threepenny Opera” and “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.” The second act covers his American career with collaborators as diverse as Ira Gershwin and Langston Hughes.
The Mufti series being stripped down concert versions of musicals that deserve a 2nd look, there’s no set of course, just a piano downstage left. And a projection covering the back wall of the stage that shows a grainy black and white photo of a busy wharf with a quotation at the top:
“In the dark times will there be singing?
Yes, there will be singing about the dark times.” Bertolt Brecht
I think of Weill’s signature musical style as haunting melodies that are searing but not sweet. With bold, passionate tango rhythms that flare up and die down, but simmer all the time with repressed feeling. The first act captures this perfectly with his early works written in Germany as Fascism swept the land and Hitler came to power. Songs like “Mack the Knife,” “How to Survive,” “Surabaya Johnny,” “Pirate Jenny,” and “Alabama Song,” that deal with corruption, man’s inhumanity to man, futility, revenge and institutionalized brutality reflect the dark times.
The cast of Berlin to Broadway With Kurt Weill: A Musical Voyage does an outstanding job with this material. With nothing other than crisp staging by director Pamela Hunt, virtuoso piano accompaniment from musical director Eric Svejar and a few rolling music stands, they prove that a song is a monologue set to music. Incredible acting as well as breathtaking singing was the order of the night. Rachel de Benedet knocked the ball out of the park with her performances of “Surabaya Johnny” and “Pirate Jenny.” I had chills and shivers running up and down my arms during both songs. Not only is her mezzo voice gorgeous and commanding, she is a mesmerizing actress. The rest of the cast is exceptionally talented as well, though Meghan Picerno’s operatic soprano is out of place among the Broadway voices of the others.
Act II and Weill’s American musicals were a bit of a surprise to me. Being free of the oppressive atmosphere of the Nazis, clearly changed Weill’s outlook and his music. He adapted a lighter, more melodious style and jazzier American rhythms. Like the popular standard “September Song,” sung beautifully here by baritone Michael Halling, a Kurt Weill/Maxwell Anderson song from “Knickerbocker Holiday.” Although his musical style may have altered somewhat, his political views didn’t at all. Songs like “Johnny’s Song,” “How Can You Tell An American” and “Progress” attest to his continuing focus on his political beliefs.
I will probably never get the chance to most of these musicals staged, more’s the pity. So I’m extremely glad I got the chance to experience a small taste of what they were like. I’m going to go troll the internet and see what I can find in the way of original recordings. And remember that dark times can be lived through with a little music.
Berlin to Broadway With Kurt Weill: A Musical Voyage Music by Kurt Weill, text and format by Gene Lerner, Lyrics by Maxwell Anderson, Marc Blitzstein, Bertolt Brecht, Jacques Duval, Michael Feingold, Ira Gershwin, Paul Green, Langston Hughes, Alan Jay Lerner, Ogden Nash, George Tabori and Arnold Weinstein; Directed by Pamela Hunt, Music Direction by Eric Svejcar
WITH: Karl Josef Co (Tenor); Rachel de Benedet (Mezzo); Michael Halling (Baritone); Meghan Picerno (Soprano); Brian Charles Rooney (Guide)
Scenic consultant, James Morgan; lighting design by Brian Nason; projection design by Justin West; press rep, Richard Hillman PR: Philip Carruba; production manager, Kevin Maloof; production stage manager, Kimothy Cruse; assistant stage manager, Shanna Allison. The York Theatre Company at St. Peter’s Church, 619 Lexington Avenue (entrance on 54th St just east of Lexington Avenue). For tickets visit www.yorktheatre.org or call (212) 935-5820.