May 7, 2007

Weill Bodies

The relationship that doesn't quite jell in the captivating, occasionally muddled Lovemusik isn't the on-again-off-again marriage of its principals, Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya. It's the Atlantic-sized gulf between Weill's European and American careers, which gives the show an occasional whiplash; I'm still getting over the jarring transition from the severe Threepenny Opera overture to the fluffy "Girl of the Moment" (from Lady in the Dark).

But this isn't just a transition issue. While the scores to Johnny Johnson, One Touch of Venus, and Lost in the Stars are equal to anything he wrote in Germany or France, I find that most of Weill's American output leaves me ice-cold, and there's a goodly amount of it here: Love Life's "Illusion Wedding Show," Lady's "Never Too Late to Mendelssohn." Good thing, then, that show is framed by two of his most "European"-sounding American songs, "Speak Low" and "September Song." And I could write a whole review of Jonathan Tunick's piquant chamber-sized orchestrations--so, so right, even in the shiny-happy Broadway segments.

Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy are, and make, remarkably inspired choices: Suitably iconic yet not crudely imitative, they illuminate Weill and Lenya with definitive, individual artistry of their own. And yes, among the brilliant touches in Murphy's detailed performance is an imperceptibly descending vocal range, so that the woman who sings "September Song" at show's end is not the same brittle smartie who warbled "Alabama Song" in the first act. Cerveris does a similar sleight of hand with his voice by show's end, a task all the more remarkable in that he's (believably) playing a non-singer.

Alfred Uhry's book is artful up to a point, especially given the built-in limitations of the composer-bio genre, and Harold Prince's direction is very smart, even sly, when it's not obvious or just plain odd. And about the politics--in other words, how the show treats Brecht--admittedly the news is not good. Uhry has clearly read his John Fuegi. The best defense I can make is that Lovemusik is not Brecht's story, and that the politics of Brecht's and Weill's collaborations is hardly the most interesting thing about them. (There's a reason real Brechtophiles prefer Mother Courage or The Good Person of Setzuan or The Caucasian Chalk Circle to Threepenny or Mahagonny.)

A part of me finds it bittersweet that a cobbled-together anthology show is the only way much of this material will ever be heard or seen on Broadway again, but that's not a problem unique to Weill--few of the shows for which Porter or Gershwin or Berlin or Kern wrote their best songs will (or should) ever see a revival, either. What is gratifying is to witness again how irreducibly theatrical this music can be, and to report that if you're going to see a cobbled-together anthology show of Weill's music, with a lot of Lenya necessarily in the mix, you could do a lot, lot worse than this largely enthralling effort.

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