OVER THE DARK HARBOR WATER
Walking a cold, mostly deserted Santa Monica Pier on the way to this show, I passed a photographer’s booth blaring the Azealia Banks song about “cunt getting eaten.” A Brechtian juxtaposition: the family-friendly commercial beacon of the Pacific Park Ferris Wheel, reduced to a giant neon vagina inviting and enveloping the tongue of money. That was the most Brechtian moment of the evening, not excluding the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill songs that constitute most of Kurt Weill at the Cuttlefish Hotel.
Director Paul Sand and musical director Michael Roth’s pseudo-cabaret is loosely drawn from Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera. It features a couple of songs not in that show, and no story elements outside the song lyrics; what it does have are remarkably well-orchestrated, -staged, and -sung torch renditions of some of the least likely show tunes in musical history. For all that this production is not, including comfortable and adequately managed, its successful theatricality fairly screams for Mr. Sand to stage Threepenny Opera in its entirety. As it is, it’s an opportunity to hear these Leftist calls-to-arms out of context.
The room currently dubbed the West End Theatre is poorly endowed to host a cabaret. While there’s a half hour to chat and order drinks between the published showtime and performers taking stage, there’s no place to do it but fifty or sixty crammed-in chairs. Single-level seating makes it hard for anyone seated behind the second row to see the stage (if you can see at all, with four LEDs shining directly into your eyes). And with no tables, drinks have to be held for an hour or set on the floor. Among the places not to place your stemmed wineglass: against the foot of my chair.
But a crowded room stinking of spilled red is a fine venue for these grim proletariat arias. The Macheath of “Mack the Knife” really isn’t Bobby Darin’s hipper-than-thou scamp but a demented psychopath, a sentiment captured in the dissonant strains of Mr. Roth’s arrangement even before Shay Astar sings a single word. Ms. Astar’s faintly creepy vibrato echoes through the well-mixed soundscape; her hypnotic vaudevillian movements help enchant the room into a beautiful nightmare that does not stop through nine songs rendered by herself, Megan Rippey, Sol Mason, and Mr. Sand. (The band includes the extravagantly tasteful Mr. Roth on piano, Amy White on harmonium and keyboards, Jenson Smith on cello, and Tamboura Baptiste on violin.)
As ordered and performed, these tunes and ballads (most in the translation from a 1994 London revival of Threepenny Opera) indict the monstrous Macheath for abusing and betraying women in all kinds of nasty ways; Ms. Astar even delivers the junkie’s-girlfriend harangue “Surabaya Johnny” from a show not featuring the character, as if to Macheath. Without narrative to tie the songs together, though, it’s not clear why Mr. Sand is “playing” Macheath. He personalizes his occasional appearances with an arresting physicality, and sports a red glove in a nod to Macheath’s character as he pleads his case in “Call from the Grave” and “Ballad in which Macheath Begs All Men’s Forgiveness.” Fascinating to watch, still this performance choice does not shape a brief entertainment into a coherent song cycle. Instead it makes me want to see the show to which this one keeps alluding.
As director and musical director, Paul Sand and Michael Roth complement each other in creating evocative stage moments within each of their female vocalists’ songs — Megan Rippey has a particularly subtle, sexy turn with the violent fantasy “Pirate Jenny.” Sol Mason’s game, high-kicking MC-ish bits carry less impact, serving a placeholder function that, again, would be less awkward given a larger context. But one senses the power lurking behind this not-quite cabaret that wants to be a play. Fleshed out into a full production, it could be explosive enough to satisfy revolutionaries like Brecht and Weill.
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photos by Agi Magyari
Kurt Weill at the Cuttlefish Hotel
West End Theatre
on the Santa Monica Pier
scheduled to end on December 21, 2013
for tickets, call (310) 488-4862 or visit http://thewestendtheatre.com