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It’s hard say why exactly Washington National Opera’s current production of Lost in the Stars, Kurt Weill’s musical adaptation of Cry, the Beloved Country, doesn’t really resonate, but the better question might be why the WNO felt it was the right company to stage it in the first place.
Not to say opera companies should never put on musicals. The musical-ization of opera is, by now, a well established trend and not really that controversial except maybe among a few opera purist holdouts. The WNO has put on some straight-up musicals, e.g. Show Boat (which it unnecessarily tried to pass off as an opera), to considerable success. Companies should push the boundaries of their traditional mandates. But when they do, they should ask themselves what they uniquely bring to the table.
In the case of Show Boat, it was the staging, in particular the lavish steamship set, that a company with deeper pockets than the average theater company could pull off (the WNO specializes in big–ass boats). In the case of Lost in the Stars, it’s certainly not the staging, which consists of a drab backdrop of corrugated cardboard (evoking 1940s South African shantytowns) and little else. The one thing WNO can say it offers is Eric Owens, a talented singer with a resplendent bass-baritone who last starred in one of its boat productions, The Flying Dutchman.
Owens’ singing is indeed nice, though rather restrained; he rarely lets loose his foghorn-like bellow and instead squeezes out his lines through a pinched expression of pain he wears on his face for the entire opera. His acting, well… the thing is, you can’t really count on opera singers to always be great actors. The supporting cast provides some individually impressive performances by singers, including crystalline soprano Lauren Michelle and strong tenor Sean Panikkar, and by (non-singing) actor Wynn Harmon in the difficult role of James Jarvis, who manages to make an unsympathetic character who undergoes an unbelievable transformation both sympathetic and believable.
In the end, though, there isn’t enough here to deliver the emotional payoff the story builds to. Perhaps it’s not the fault of the cast, or director Tazewell Thompson, a theater vet who’s become a WNO regular and helped the opera company with all the other, non-vocal components critical for good drama. It might go back to the source material, and the inherent difficulty of adapting a landmark novel to the stage. Weill’s musical went to Broadway just a year after Alan Paton’s novel came out, before it was certain to be a landmark. But Cry, the Beloved Country was unmistakably ambitious, a neat family drama (too neat, really—with coincidences and resolutions that strain credulity) that doubles as a searing indictment of the whole system of white supremacy in South Africa, just before apartheid was formally instituted. The character developments, personal tragedies, and structural injustices are too great to distill into a two-and-a-half hour musical and expect audiences to feel much of a connection.
Owens plays Stephen Kumalo, a black Anglican priest who leaves his home village for Johannesburg to check up on his sister Gertrude and look for his son Absalom (young actor Manu Kumasi), both of whom left for the city earlier and are reportedly up to no good. Kumalo tracks down Absalom through his son’s parole officer, but not before Absalom gets sucked into a home invasion robbery that goes awry. The musical and book are very much products of their time, from the uncomfortable sexual politics of Kumalo’s interrogations into the virtue of his future daughter-in-law Irena (the aforementioned Michelle, a standout), to the depressing racial politics of a midcentury South Africa where the end of white rule was nowhere on the horizon.
Weill’s own musical was ambitious as well, too ambitious for its own good. In addition to his determination to write socially transformative stage dramas, he sought to reinvent the very genre of musical theater, giving the musical more dialogue and greater emotional depth. His music is at times high Hollywood schmaltz, at others Wagnerian Romanticism. One other thing WNO offers is more expansive orchestration than the original 12-piece ensemble Weill wrote for the Broadway original, though conductor John DeMain, who has experience with musical-operas (Show Boat, Sweeney Todd) leads a shaky orchestra with a couple off-pitch moments. But Lost in the Stars is, fundamentally, an unabashed tearjerker, and the greatest sin for such is to leave a dry eye in the house. There was some good singing along the way, but not much in the way of tears.
The production continues through Saturday, February 20 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. $79 – $265.
Photo by Karli Cadel