Lost in the Stars Sings South African Tragedy

Encores! revives Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson's adaptation of Cry, the Beloved Country

In the 14 years before his death in 1950, Kurt Weill wrote eight Broadway musicals, of which only three come even close to following a conventional pattern: Knickerbocker Holiday (1938) and Firebrand of Florence (1944) are traditional Broadway operettas; One Touch of Venus (1943) is a relatively standard musical comedy in form. All of Weill's other shows are one-of-a-kind: an Expressionist parable about war; a psychoanalytic drama in which the musical sequences are surrealistic dreams; a marital history that is also an American-history pageant, done as a vaudeville show; a verismo opera cast in the Broadway pop-tune idiom; and, finally, Lost in the Stars (1949), just revived in a concert staging by City Center Encores!.

Scanning that list makes it doubly startling that some of Weill's émigré-musician colleagues viewed him as a turncoat who had "sold out" to pure commercialism. Till Sondheim, it's hard to think of any successful Broadway composer whose chosen projects offered fewer "commercial" prospects. Though based on one of the era's most popular bestsellers, Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, Lost in the Stars virtually announces its lack of interest in turning a profit. A study of racism in South Africa, the work that Weill and his librettist, Maxwell Anderson, carved out of Paton's novel is essentially a dramatic oratorio interspersed with chunks of spoken drama, demanding a large cast and an even larger chorus. Telling a grim story in an often solemn tone, it makes few concessions to Broadway's fondness for hit "numbers" and comic relief.

What it does have, in plenty, is the merger of passion and skill in Weill's extraordinary score, its choral passages in particular handled with astonishing mastery. Musically sensitive listeners often start getting goosebumps early in the opening chorus, at the hair-raising modulation Weill hits (with a matching shift in orchestral texture) when his text, taken from Paton's opening paragraphs, describes how the rolling hills of the veldt gradually fall in height, "and falling, change." Another hair-raiser occurs, a few numbers on, when the chorus sopranos create the wail of a train whistle, in a long chromatic downward slide.

South African tragedy in song: Chuck Cooper and Sharon Washington
Joan Marcus
South African tragedy in song: Chuck Cooper and Sharon Washington

Weill's chorus serves a multiplicity of functions. It describes, it reports, it warns, it rants, it preaches. In one sequence, it echoes the mind of the hero, Reverend Stephen Kumalo (Chuck Cooper), a woebegone country pastor, while he searches Johannesburg for his wayward son, Absalom (Daniel Breaker). Ultimately, in a chorale that embodies Paton's title as well as his theme, it unleashes a gigantic, elegiac shout of despair: "Cry, the beloved country . . ./The wasted childhood/The wasted youth/The wasted man. . . ."

By that point, if your musical responsiveness hasn't reduced you to a quivering pulp, what follows will. Just as Pastor Kumalo arrives in the big city, desperation has led Absalom to commit a robbery, during which, out of panic, he commits murder. His victim, ironically, is a friend of his father's, the white liberal Arthur Jarvis (Kieran Campion). The final scene shows Stephen, having lost his faith and resigned from his church, awaiting his son's execution. At the last moment, an unexpected lifeline back to the world is thrown to him, somewhat improbably, by the murdered man's father (Daniel Gerroll), formerly an unregenerate racist. The two old men make common cause, but inescapably, the two young men are dead.

Weill and Anderson didn't wholly solve the difficulties of bringing this stony story to theatrical life. Gary Griffin's concert staging, lacking the enriched details of a fully rehearsed production, made their work seem a rigid row of separable chunks, made still bumpier by Anderson's propensity for spelling out his messages. Though the choral singing and orchestral sound were outstanding, conductor Rob Berman's often rushed tempos seemed irritatingly determined to "sell" the solo songs as pop showstoppers. This made both Cooper and Sherry Boone, as Absalom's love, seem at odds with the score's idiom. First-rate performances in nonsinging roles—Breaker, Gerroll, John Douglas Thompson as Stephen's cynical brother, Stephen Kunken as a sympathetic bureaucrat—couldn't stabilize the event by themselves. Only young Jeremy Gumbs, scoring the hit of the evening with a child's song, and the chorus, powerfully led by Quentin Earl Darrington, stood foursquare in the work's center, pulling the tragedy up toward Weill's musical light.

mfeingold@villagevoice.com

 
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