Street Scene, Young Vic, London

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The Independent Culture

Kurt Weill called Street Scene "a Broadway opera", but there aren't too many operas with a wild jitterbug that segues into a slutty blues or a children's chorus who chant, "My father's name is Rockefeller./He shovels diamonds in the cellar." Into his 1947 musical version of Elmer Rice's 1929 play, Weill emptied a cornucopia of influences – Wagner, Puccini, folk song, jazz, operetta, and his predecessors on the Great White Way (predominantly George Gershwin). The luscious melodies, the powerful use of music to foreshadow action and accentuate character, make one grateful for even this flawed production of a rarely presented show, which looks back a decade to Porgy and Bess and forward to West Side Story.

The elements of the complex score don't really fuse into a unified whole, but their variety embodies the show's theme. Rice, a socialist, wrote Street Scene to show that the melting pot won't work while capitalist exploitation keeps the exhausted workers simmering with self-destructive resentment. The tenement is filled to bursting with immigrants from Sweden, Italy, Germany, Ireland, Africa and the ghettos of Europe, each of whom fiercely maintain their ethnic identities and antagonisms. A tropical New York summer finds them sprawled, panting, on the front steps, where the friction of lust, jealousy and frustration produces sparks that light a fatal fire.

The libretto, by Langston Hughes, is a slice of life rather than a story – its action (man catches wife in adultery and kills her) barely amounts to an anecdote. The characters, also, are fairly bare-bones: Gossip, Mistreated Wife, Working Girl, Bully. What drives the piece is passion: Mrs Maurrant, though terrified of her brutish husband, defies him, disgrace and death for her lover; her virginal daughter, Rose, desperate to leave the sordid tenement, considers becoming the mistress of her married boss; Sam Kaplan is crazy about Rose, but he is bound to his law studies and she regards him as a friend only.

That passion is evident in the doom-laden music, in the gorgeous-sounding orchestra of three dozen and a chorus of equal size. But the operatic demands of most of the parts mean that the theatrical side is often scanted or misunderstood, as in John Fulljames's production. Adrian Dwyer's utterly un-Jewish Sam is less romantic idealist than stodgy nerd, there is some silly and distracting business, and the lyrics are often inaudible, particularly in ensemble numbers. Hughes is occasionally maudlin or simplistic, but the homeliness and anguish of his Harlem poetry made him a fine choice, especially for such despondent arias as Sam's "Lonely House": "The night for me is not romantic – unhook the stars and take them down!"

As the brute, Andrew Slater shows, movingly, that his character's harshness is the outgrowth of helplessness and fear. Ruby Hughes's Rose is also touching in her struggle to cling to her dreams, as in the exquisite, "What Good Would the Moon Be?". But the evening belongs to the golden-voiced Elena Ferrari, who beautifully conveys the love-starved Mrs Maurrant's yearning, as well as her intense pride in her one satisfaction, her children. The song in which she soothes her small, fretful son ("Somebody's going to be so handsome...") is heartbreaking, not only for its warmth and conviction, but for our knowledge that she will never see him grow up. (For all his brittle Berliner cynicism, Weill was always tender in his material for and about children, as in the lilting, springtime-fresh "Wrapped in a Ribbon and Tied in a Bow" with which a group of girls in white dresses celebrate their graduation.)

Patrick Bailey, who conducts the musicians from upstage centre, archly framed by two dustbins, turns around several times to beam at the cast. In any show this would be reprehensible; in a show about social cooperation it's unforgivable.

To 22 July (020-7922 2922)