Devised by: Gene Lerner
Director: Giles Havergal
Musical Director: Martin Pickard
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Leeds is not short of quality theatre and it’s good to see the level of co-operation between three of the city’s finest. Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill is a co-production by Opera North and West Yorkshire Playhouse, staged in the City Varieties, a perfect venue for a show with hints of cabaret.
Who were Gene Lerner and Newton Wayland, listed in the programme as, respectively, devising the show and making the musical arrangements for piano? They prepared the original New York production in 1972 which seems to have had a rather different selection of songs, as did a 2000 off-Broadway production with only four singers.
As presented at the City Varieties, this seems to be essentially the original Lerner show, tailored to meet the resources and talents of the Opera North Chorus. While their colleagues prepare to move into the London Coliseum with Kiss Me, Kate, eleven of the chorus work through solos and ensembles, narration and a bit of acting and dancing, in a thoroughly appealing show devoted to one of the more remarkable talents of 20th Century music theatre.
The Great American Songbook was largely built on the genius of first and second generation Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, fleeing pogroms in Russia, stark poverty in many lands and, finally, Nazism in Germany. Kurt Weill was unusual in having very different and equally successful careers both sides of the pond.
And that gives the show its format. The first half, Berlin, is devoted to the songs Weill wrote with words by Bertholt Brecht in the 1920s and early 1930s, in which Weill’s music, born out of academic training, gave an edge to the Communist vision of Bertolt Brecht.
The show begins with Stuart Laing singing, unaccompanied from the back of the stalls, Kurt Weill’s best-known song, Mack the Knife. The first half gives us indignation on behalf of the oppressed, a taste for life’s underbelly and a fascination with distant places. The lovely “Moon of Alabama” section of the Alabama Song, perfectly delivered by the ensemble, establishes Brecht/Weill’s bruised lyricism.
Three shows dominate the first half: The Threepenny Opera, Happy End and Mahagonny. Laura Kelly-McInroy mines the pathos and menace of Pirate Jenny and Amy J Payne stops the show (literally – we all need the interval!) with a coruscating Surabaya Johnny, but in some ways the greatest pleasure of the first half is encountering The Cranes’ Duet, beautifully sung (in German) by Lorna James and Nicholas Watts, the most operatic piece of the evening.
Weill left Germany in 1933 and, after a two-year stopover in Paris, sailed to America and reinvented himself as a Broadway composer, still with left-wing credentials. His songs from 1935 to his death in 1950 mostly used poets, not journeymen, as lyricists: Langston Hughes, Ogden Nash, Maxwell Anderson and Ira Gershwin (who was really a poet). In the second half achingly tender songs such as September Song, My Ship and Speak Low jostle for space alongside three glorious (and much less well-known) ensemble pieces: Ice Cream. Wouldn’t You Like to Be on Broadway? (men only) and That’s Him (women).
Opera North has a recent tradition of concerts that are far more than concerts and here the stage set-up of rows of chairs alongside and next to a grand piano suggests that there won’t be much action. Under Giles Havergal’s briskly imaginative direction this is not the case: no costumes as such, but plenty of animation and contrast in moves and groupings and deft hints of characterization.
The strength of the Opera North Chorus is obvious, not only in some powerful or amusing ensembles but in stylish solos, all eleven having at least one individual feature. Occasionally, especially in the first half, the delivery can sound a touch too operatic, but these are solidly-crafted songs that can take very different treatments. Dean Robinson, for instance, cannot give us the world-weary tones of Walter Huston in September Song, but he can give us the notes instead and it still ends up as poignant as ever. Martin Pickard’s elegantly economical piano accompaniment is the final vital ingredient in the show.
Runs until 21 June 2018 | Image: Anthony Robling