These days we’re so used to thinking of Kurt Weill as the sardonic musical half of the Brecht-Weill opera-mill, that it comes as a shock to be reminded that in America Weill composed in a very different style. John Fulljames’s award-winning Opera Group production of ‘Street Scene’ reflects the brilliance and power of that style.
The original ‘Street Scene’ was a play by Elmer Rice which Weill saw before he fled Germany. As a social-realist study of life in a New York tenement block – with a violent denouement which would have appealed to Puccini – it spoke directly to his radical instincts. It presented him, he said, with a challenge ‘to find the inherent poetry in these people, and to blend my music with the stark realism of the play.’ His lyrics would be by the black Harlem poet Langston Hughes.
The drama unfolds in 24 tumultuous hours during which we get a vivid glimpse of this impoverished society, to echoes of children’s street games, barking dogs, and the shouts of a woman in protracted labour. Everyone has their dream of escape, but for Anna Marrant, oppressed by her hard-drinking husband Frank, escape means forbidden love. Their daughter Rose wants to escape into showbiz, and her shy admirer Sam is studying for a law degree; gossip surrounds them all malevolently.
Dick Bird’s set is a convincing simulacrum of a Lower East Side brownstone festooned with lines of washing; Fulljames galvanises his cast of 80 – including a large community contingent – in constantly hectic movement. They look right, and Southbank Sinfonia Touring provides the right swing for the soundtrack, as Weill’s bright string of song-and-dance numbers gets into gear. If some of those numbers stray into ‘Top Hat’ territory, that’s just fine, because several of Fulljames’s singer-actors really can do Astaire-and-Rogers: Kate Nelson, John Moabi, and James McOran-Campbell - take a bow. Meanwhile Joseph Shovelton and Paul Featherstone light up the stage with their sheer charisma, while Susanna Hurrell and Paul Curievici wring the heart. Elena Ferrari’s performance as the doomed Anna Marrant is heroic, as is that of Geof Dolton as her explosive but impotent husband.
This engaging show has moments of deep pathos, but there are times when the singing veers too much towards opera: as music-theatre, it demands a more up-front verbal directness, and maybe some miking as well.