Audiences never really come out of musicals humming the sets, but if there’s to be any buzz at all on Washington Jewish Theatre’s Berlin to Broadway With Kurt Weill, it’ll have to be about the hulk of an ocean liner Robin Stapley has torpedoed at center stage. The gaping hole in its hull seems tailor-made for letting Weill’s minor-chord harmonics seep sourly into an audience’s consciousness. And when the maw widens at the end of the first number to reveal a rusting interior worthy of Pirate Jenny’s “black freighter,” complete with shadow-shrouded chandelier and spotlit lifeboat, anyone familiar with Weill’s brazenly discordant oeuvre will be ready to go down with the ship.
Sadly, director Christian Mendenhall runs his eager little revue aground in its first 15 minutes, leaving five game but ill-equipped performers foundering aimlessly through what feels like a terminally misguided cruise ship entertainment. Weillcomposer of The Threepenny Opera, Happy End, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, and Lady in the Dark, among other theater classicsdoesn’t function well in spirit-picker-upper mode, and apart from a few moments of anthemic bellicosity, that’s mostly how he’s being played here.
Berlin to Broadway approaches the composer quasi-chronologically, with a few acid ditties from his early days with the Brecht collective played out of sequence to provide bracing act-enders. This means the evening is doomed to peter out much as Weill’s career did, with its melodies sounding increasingly homogenized once the composer has fled Nazi Germany for Broadway and begun collaborating with the likes of Ogden Nash and Alan Jay Lerner. But Mendenhall has contrived to have the deterioration start much earlier than it needs to.
The way he’s staged the bitterly ironic “Bilbao Song”with a Salvation Army soubrette holding out her tambourine for contributions while a pair of natty lounge lizards reminisce with appalling blitheness about that ol’ Bilbao moonthis elegantly sour Brecht/Weill confection might as easily hail from Guys and Dolls as from Happy End. Shortly thereafter, the director inexplicably illustrates Mahagonny’s “Alabama Song” with grasping motions that would be better suited to a number celebrating recovery from repetitive-motion syndrome.
At other points Mendenhall has the performers engage in interpretive dance that makes them look spastic, cane-twirling that makes them look inept, and balloon buffoonery that makes them look simple-minded. He’s also had the dreadful idea of bringing up the house lights at intermission while the cast is still standing at the lip of the stage, frozen in the last pose of the first-act finale. A hamfisted application of Brecht’s famed “alienation effect,” this might be acceptable if it merely made the audience feel stupid for applauding (which it tends to do only halfheartedly, anyway). But because there’s no curtain and the director doesn’t believe strongly enough in the device to have his actors stay frozen for 15 minutes, it also means cast members must then retreat one by one under the watchful gaze of whatever politely baffled patrons haven’t fled to the lobby.
None of which contributes to an understanding of why Weill became one of the century’s more influential theater composers. Though his work in this country was largely unpopular with the general public, its inflections can be found in the music of many of his contemporaries, including Frank Loesser and Jule Styne. There are hints of his fondness for jittery dissonance in Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations for Stephen Sondheim, and of his jazz-inflected songspiel in virtually everything John Kander wrote after Cabaret (which co-starred Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya).
Weill’s ironic style began lending sophistication to the Broadway musical years before Rodgers and Hammerstein revolutionized the form with Oklahoma!. The German composer arrived in New York in 1935 and churned out roughly one show every two years until the 1949 premiere of Lost in the Stars, his ambitious adaptation of Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. Weill died a year later, never having achieved American prominence of the sort he’d had in prewar Germany. Fortunately, a 1954 Threepenny revival off-B’way starring Lenya burnished his reputation sufficiently that his work is now required listening for anyone actually working in the musical theater. In recent years, there’s been talk of reviving Lady in the Dark, the innovative 1941 show in which he, librettist Moss Hart, and lyricist Ira Gershwin took on a then-new phenomenon called psychoanalysis and catapulted Danny Kaye (with tongue-twisting “Tchaikovsky” lyrics) to stardom.
That song isn’t in Berlin to Broadway, but it’s one of relatively few well-known Weill melodies that aren’t given a cursory gloss by the evening’s five-member cast. Ilona Dulaski gets the presumably plum assignment of limning Lenya as the evening’s narrator, and for a moment or two it seems she’s up to it. Then she starts trying to hit the high notes and all is lost. Lenya let the melodies go and concentrated on delivering lyrics in that fierce gutteral bark that became her trademark. Dulaski heads for the stratosphere and becomes either shrill or operatic, depending on the song. She also has a tendency to slide sharp on high notes, which is problematic when she’s teamed in one duet with Peter Gil, who tends to slide flat. Gil, for his part, has the misfortune to be saddled with the evening’s single dumbest staging notion when the director has him sit down in a chair to deliver “September Song,” quite as if the intent was to deprive that lovely ballad of both lung power and visual tension.
John J. Kaczynski has the pipes but not the moves for the nasty Brecht-Weill songs that open the show, and seems far more comfortable when the material turns conventional in the evening’s second half. Though he has the strongest voice in the cast, his best moment isn’t vocal, it’s his dissolve into a puddle of gooseflesh while being tickled and teased in a number from One Touch of Venus called “That’s Him.” Lynn Filusch has some lovely charcoal-cured low notes but not a lot of stage presence. And if Elizabeth van den Berg turns in the evening’s sturdiest performanceshe manages to retain her dignity even when slapped to the ground in Threepenny’s “Jealousy Duet”she’s too studied during her big solos for her songs to really catch fire.
Which means the evening’s chief pleasure is Stapley’s Titanic-evoking ocean liner set, with its riveted bulkheads, blasted hull, and stairways to nowhere. Even with David B. Sislen’s ever-shifting lighting doing it no favors, it’s pretty damn fabulous. I believed every rusted rivet, though contemporary theater economics dictate that they’re probably painted Styrofoam. Other area stages have used Stapleywhose credits include scenic design work for London’s Royal Shakespeare Companyonly as a costumer. Presumably, when word gets around, that’ll change. In the meantime, I feel duty-bound to report that it’s possible to see his Berlin to Broadway set without shelling out for a ticket. The scale model from which the carpenters workedwonderfully accurate in nearly every detailis on public display in the lobby.CP