Sunday, April 15, 2007

But Where Was Pirate Jenny's Song?

"LoveMusik" presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club at the Biltmore Theatre, April 14, 2007

In what should have been a triumphant return to directing on Broadway, Hal Prince's latest effort is (so far - since the show is still in previews) a long and drawn out affair that seems most interested in trying to present the entire Weill songbook in a single evening of theatre. He's got some significant talent to work with in Donna Murphy as Lotte Lenya and Michael Cerveris as Kurt Weill. Alfred Uhry's book takes a while to find its way, and does manage some interesting moments. There is a tendency to get bogged down in minutiae to accomodate the song coming up next. I liked that they indicated the lyricist for each song, but wish they'd taken the next step and identified the show in which it appeared. MTC has done a nice job with program notes about the four principal characters of Lenya, Weill, Bertold Brecht and George Davis.

As Lotte Lenya, Ms. Murphy works hard to remain compelling with some rather redundant moments. It's established early on that fidelity is not her strong suit, but challenging Weill's ability to love her is. That said, it took a while for that passion to really come through. Though Weill was of a particularly passive nature, I didn't sense that the book provided Mr. Cerveris the chance to really express himself in their first argument. Once that passion was revealed a scene or two later, Mr. Cerveris' awkward and tender portrayal came through beautifully. Even though it's only listed twice in the playbill, it seemed like there were at least three (if not five) reprises of "I Don't Love You."

Ms. Murphy, all gangly knees and hips again like in the recent "Wonderful Town" gives us a Lenya who is free with her love as a defense to mask her fear of rejection. I do have to say, though, that her songs reminded me a lot more of Edith Piaf than Lotte Lenya. I did a quick internet search to find a Lenya recording and think Ms. Murphy's own un-accented voice much closer than that of her performance in this show.

As Bertold Brecht, David Pittu, whose skills remind me more and more of a Stanley Tucci for musical theatre with another chameleon-like turn. His Brecht is trashy and talented, only concerned about self-promotion and pleasure.

John Scherer gets saddled with the standard-required-gay-role of George Davis, Weill's American agent. He does get to show off some nice song-and-dance skills in "The Illusion Wedding Show." I'm still not sure why Patricia Birch didn't put tap shoes on him for that number - he certainly hit the marks from what I could hear in the mezzanine.

I was struck with how many scenes/moments reminded me of Kander and Ebb's "Cabaret, originally directed by Mr. Prince. From the first scene between Weill and Lenya in Weill's tiny apartment, which seemed much like Cliff and Sally's first scene at Frau Schneider's boarding house, to Brecht's first number, "Tango Ballad" and "Schickelgruber," both of which pointed back to Cabaret's "Two Ladies."

I did have a couple of tactical questions about some staging decisions.
  • Why did the rowboat bit at the beginning look so cheaply done?
  • Why were some parts of scenes staged out of view of the mezzanine?
  • Why was one of Brecht's companions scrubbing the sand outside his trailer in Santa Monica?
  • Why did Alan Lake's costume during "Buddy on the Night Shift" look like a Chelsea-boy sleeveless tshirt?
  • Has anyone ever seen such well-endowed figures as were depicted on the first act false proscenium?
  • Most of all, with all the music they did manage to put into the show, why would they leave out Pirate Jenny's song from "Threepenny Opera," a number I saw Ms. Murphy sing at the Public's anniversary celebration (summer of 2004?) in a devastating performance? There are many references to TPO throughout the show, but for a role so closely associated with Lenya, how does one leave it out?
Overall, I would have to describe the production as slightly awkward right now. It seems like a production that should still be out of town, working through some of these issues, the most pressing of which is the nearly three-hour running time.

Technically, this isn't one of MTC's better efforts. Costumes by Judith Dolan are a mish-mash of styles, with no indication of a unified look. Beowulf Boritt's sets are also an uneven affair, working from a palette of red and black, but tossing in a mix of styles without much apparent attention to theme. It is early in previews, but the Howell Binkley's lighting experienced a few glitches here and there.

That said, there is much to be seen here. When Ms. Murphy sings "Surabaya Johnny," she is mesmerizing, once again earning her reputation as a powerful and charismatic performer. I thought the staging of Weill's death was beautifully done, followed by a heartbreaking delivery of "September Song" by Ms. Murphy and Mr. Davis. Mr. Cerveris is equally compelling, particularly so in the reprises of "I Don't Love You."


Anonymous said...

I saw the show on Sunday evening, April 15. I think all the characters would come across much better if they dialed back the accents by about 33 percent. The accents are necessary, but they are so forced and over the top that they detract from the songs. Murphy isn't the spitting image of Lenya, but her physical impression is stilll quite evocative. Cerveris' Weill is very on the money.

The sets for the most part are pretty cheesy!

Mondschein said...

Agreed - I also found the accents very distracting and wondered just how necessary they are since there are only a few scenes in the show where an accent might be needed - with George Davis and the photo shoot. A slight accent there would have communicated how different Lenya and Weill might have felt in their new world without forcing the audience to struggle to understand their lines and lyrics in the rest of the show.