FOUND IN THE STARS
Lost in the Stars is quite possibly composer Kurt Weill’s magnum opus for the American Theater. The score is prime Weill, characteristically mixing high operatic style with lowdown showbiz pizzazz. Based on Alan Paton’s poetic and popular novel Cry, the Beloved Country, the piece—while not considered a commercial success—had a respectable 281-performance run after its 1949 opening at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre. Ever since, major productions have been few (but that’s the case with all of Weill’s musicals except Three Penny Opera [Die Dreigroschenoper, 1928]): revivals include New York City Opera (1958), a short-lived Broadway revival (1972), and concert stagings with the BBC (2009) and Encores! (2011). Last weekend’s two-performance mounting by Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, a co-production with CAP UCLA, proved it well worth reviving, even with the problematic adaptation and lyrics by the distinguished playwright Maxwell Anderson.
This behemoth outing, staged by Anne Bogart, co-artistic director of NY’s theater ensemble SITI Company, was one of those theatrical miracles that left me shaking my head with astonishment. Given a limited time of rehearsal, this fully memorized, semi-staged concert had more movement and soul than most operas seen in the last few years (although Stars is technically an operetta). Set and light designer Brian H. Scott utilized Royce Hall’s bare stage with masterful blazes of ever-changing luminescence. While there were no costume changes, Nephelie Andonyadis’s outfits perfectly evoked Africa’s colonial era (the color choices of ecru, white, and black never felt obvious).
A black South African preacher, Stephen Kumalo (bass-baritone Justin Hopkins, rich in vocals, acting, and articulation), and his wife, Grace (Zuri Adele), are concerned that they haven’t heard from their son, Absalom (Samuel Stricklen), in over a year. Kumalo heads to Johannesburg, but cannot find him; Absalom is living with his pregnant girlfriend, Irina (Lauren Michelle), and keeping bad company in a rough part of town. A life of hardship and no prospects forces Absalom to participate in a holdup, during which he is caught off guard and accidentally shoots and kills a young, white liberal, Arthur Jarvis (Stephen Duff Weber).
Alone with the news that his son has been arrested, the provincial minister broods on our insignificance and unhappiness, on his realization that we are all “Lost in the Stars.” In the second act, he overhears Irina’s “Stay Well,” her realization that she loves Absalom even more despite the misery he’s brought her (Ms. Michelle’s combination of blues and silvery soprano rightfully brought down the house). Kumalo’s sympathies with her are enlisted and he agrees to marry them in prison. At the trial, Absalom’s confederates lie about their own guilt and are acquitted, but Absalom will not lie and is sentenced to be hanged.
Just before Absalom is to die, James Jarvis (Will Bond), the murdered man’s father, comes to the minister. James has not approved his son’s liberal racial views, but he is not without compassion. He, too, has lost a son, and can understand Stephen’s feelings. Moreover, he was touched by Absalom’s rigid honesty in court. The timelessness of James’s last line mirrors the struggles and desires of our modern world: “Let us be neighbors. Let us be friends.”
Even with the unyielding starkness of the story, the central drama here is powerful and moving. But the show still has its problems. Much of the action or commentary is provided by a Greek-like chorus (a device similarly used in Allegro (1947), a rare flop for Rodgers and Hammerstein which opened just two years before Lost in the Stars); this gives a static quality to what should have been a compelling drive. (The brilliant and powerful tenor Issachah Savage plays the Chorus leader here, and many in the gorgeous-sounding ensemble are from the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers.) In addition, the florid richness of South African speech sometimes seems unnatural and stilted. The shape of the dialogue is largely uninteresting and the lyrics frequently clumsy.
Weill’s score remains exciting and absorbing, however, and this production matched the dignity, passion and grandness of the music. Jeffrey Kahane’s leadership of LACO, situated with a rare appearance in the pit, was bright and stalwart. Sadly on Saturday night’s opening, the uncredited sound design was all over the map. Some in the cast were mic’d, others were not; head mikes were turned on and off too soon; and the chorus was largely unintelligible. But it’s not just Royce Hall’s acoustics and a poor sound set-up that are to blame: The only fully articulated singer was Mr. Hopkins.
While he achieved a moderate amount of success during his fourteen years in America—including two hit shows (Lady in the Dark [1941, lyrics by Ira Gershwin] and One Touch of Venus [1943, lyrics by Ogden Nash]) and some immortal songs (“September Song” and “Speak Low”)—Weill, a German émigré who wanted to write for the popular theater, was underrated during his lifetime. Just five months after Stars‘ opening night, Weill died at fifty from a heart attack.
Lost in the Stars
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA
Royce Hall, 340 Royce Dr
ends on January 29, 2017
for tickets, call 213.622.7001 or visit LACO