Monday, May 07, 2007

 

Where's Mack the Knife when you need him?

By Josh R
On paper, it looked like a slam dunk.

The concept: A musical based on the correspondence of wunderkind composer Kurt Weill, co-creator of The Threepenny Opera, and his muse and mate, the incomparable singer-actress Lotte Lenya. The material: selections taken directly from the Weill canon, framed within a libretto penned by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter Alfred Uhry. The talent: two of contemporary musical theater’s brightest stars, Tony winners Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy, under the direction of the legendary Harold Prince, the man responsible for many of the most critically lauded productions of the last 40-odd years.

Sounds like a recipe for success, doesn’t it? Manhattan Theater Club, the highly esteemed not-for-profit company which produces shows both on and off-Broadway, couldn’t have put together a more tantalizing list of ingredients for their last offering of season — what they surely hoped might serve as their pièce de résistance. The failure of these elements to coalesce into a satisfying evening of theater has less to do with the merits of the creative team than with the basic manner in which the show has been conceived; which is to say that if the soufflé falls flat, it’s not something that can be attributed to any lack of effort — or ability — on the part of the kitchen staff. For all the obvious thought and care that has gone into the creation of LoveMusik, the strange, ambivalent new show currently in previews at The Biltmore Theater, the whole is ultimately much less than the sum of its parts.


The problem doesn’t stem from the subject matter, for the tempestuous history of Weill and Lenya can’t be charged with any dearth of dramatic possibility. The two luminaries didn’t always see eye to eye, in life or in love, but they complemented each other as artists — somewhat implausibly, given the fact that their unlikely union represented a striking clash in temperaments. There was nothing in the respective characters of Weill — an unprepossessing introvert whose halting, insecure manner reflected his status as a Jew in a hostile socio-political climate — and Lenya — a reformed child prostitute reinventing herself as flamboyant sensualist with a taste for the limelight — that would have logically rendered them ideally suited as companions.

Drawing from more than 20 years of correspondence, LoveMusik begins with an awkward (and awkwardly staged) sexual encounter in a rowboat, and chronicles the couple’s progress through years of struggle, triumph, misunderstanding and reconciliation. Lenya’s insistence on an open marriage is initially met with resigned acceptance by her prospective husband, but erodes the trust they share as their respective jealousies repeatedly threaten to capsize their tenuous domestic arrangement. The second act deals with the turbulent aftermath of their early success, as the couple immigrates to America to escape the rise of fascism. Weill goes on to achieve celebrity status as a composer of Broadway shows and film scores, while Lenya — considered the equal (and chief rival) of Marlene Dietrich in her native land — has difficulty adjusting to her diminished position in country where her talents remain largely unheralded. While they lead increasingly separate lives — he devotes more of his energies to film work and his Californian mistress, while she experiences eventual career rebirth as a cabaret singer — their marriage endures until the composer’s death in 1950.

There’s a good show to be fashioned from the fabric of this stormy romance, but in the context of LoveMusik, it never quite materializes. You only realize how far it falls short when you consider the inherent theatricality of what the material has to offer — namely, the iconic presence of Lenya, the thorny brilliance of Weill’s music, and the environment in which their talents took root. Weimar-era Germany, a peculiar hybrid of decadence and decay that emerged from the ashes of the First World War, was a fascinating historical anomaly — fatalistic in defeat, steeped in self-mocking debauchery, and yet not without a kind of somber, bittersweet beauty. It provided the backdrop for at least one landmark work of musical theater — it was, in fact, Harold Prince who staged the original production of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s seminal masterpiece, Cabaret, which not coincidentally featured the real Lotte Lenya in her last major career triumph. If anyone would seem to be ideally qualified to bring the life stories of these two artists, each in their own way emblematic of the cultural landscape of the Weimar Republic, to the stage, it would be Prince — something which makes his irresolute and occasionally wrong-headed approach that much more puzzling.

Prince arguably is the most venerated musical theater director of the past half-century — his reputation is based, in part, on concise interpretation and a firm hand with unwieldy material. LoveMusik, however, never settles on a clear tone, making for an erratic presentation that veers uncertainly from poker-faced biography to musical numbers that feel either like overblown Broadway pastiche or baroque exercises in Brechtian alienation technique. A smattering of these work — particularly a blistering send-up of Hitler’s rise to power using shadow puppets — but most of them are indifferently conceived and executed. The book doesn’t function on a particularly high level; like the script for a standard-issue Hollywood biopic, Alfred Uhry’s libretto serves up a tidy compendium of major events without providing any revealing insight into the personalities involved. Compounding the problem is the creators have chosen songs that don’t necessarily correspond to the action in the scenes. A conscious effort has been made to avoid many of Weill’s better-known standards — consequently, many of the songs, in addition to being of questionable relevance to the narrative, are of rather inferior quality (this is one original cast album musical aficionados would be well advised to take a pass on). And don’t even get me started on the accents.

OK, get me started. The most critical misjudgment Prince has made — and boy, is it a whopper — is to have everyone speaking (sorry, shpeaking) with German (or rather, Cherman) accents that make the Nazi villains in black-and-white films from the 1940s sound like models of phonetic forbearance. The pronunciation is over-the-top to the point that it ceases to be logical — has anyone ever met an English-speaking German who sounded like this (and wasn't a stroke victim)? The approach would have been more suitable to an enterprise which entailed some form of wild ethnic caricature — say, the kind of show which featured the likes of Nazi Franz Liebkind, the maniacal author of “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers — but in a work that asks us to take its characters seriously, its presence is as baffling as it is jarring. Every "and" becomes an "und", every "this" becomes a "zees" and the song “Waiting for Our Wooden Wedding” becomes “Vaiting for our Vooden… You get the picture. It’s the Teutonic touch taken to the point of utter ridiculousness, and it’s hard not to find it distracting when Lenya is talking of her fondness for cake-tus (that’s cactus), her many lah-fuhsss (that lovers), und zees, zat, und zee uzzah. You expect at a certain point that your ear will adjust to this nonsense, but it never happens.

The two leads manage heroically under the circumstances, despite being saddled with accents that make them sound like relatives of Colonel Klink. An unrecognizable Michael Cerveris gives a subtle, well-modulated performance as Weill, suggesting both the burning creative ambition which drives his work and the tender, helpless sense of yearning that feeds his love for Lenya. Donna Murphy talks like Carol Kane and sings like Betty Boop, which makes for a overly stylized, yet oddly compelling piece of characterization. Very few performers can match Ms. Murphy’s aptitude for musical phrasing; her mesmerizing, delicately nuanced rendition of the torchy “Surabaya Johnny,” delivered in a shimmering blue gown against a sequined backdrop, reveals a natural affinity for the style of the period and an intuitive grasp of how to convey depths of feeling without resorting to histrionics. It’s the one moment in the show that generates any kind of electricity. If the actress relies too heavily on exaggerated mannerism during the acting portions of her performance, it stems more from the way she's been directed than from any faulty impulse on her part. The remainder of the cast tends to fade into the scenery (of which there is a lot), although David Pittu makes more of an impression playing Bertolt Brecht as a swaggering sleazeball and skulking his way through Threepenny's “Tango Ballad.”

It isn’t entirely fair to come down hard on a show when it’s still in the early stages of previews — from all reports, there’s a lot of furious re-tinkering going on behind the scenes, mainly in an effort to pare down what is a somewhat unruly running time. Perhaps the changes will make for a tighter, more cohesive presentation — but based on the looks of things, it's unlikely that any amount of last-minute surgery will get LoveMusik back up on its feet. While Kurt Weill's music has the ability to transport, the show fashioned around it remains stubbornly immobile.


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Comments:
With Donna and Audra, do you still think that Christine Ebersole seems like such a slam dunk winner as she did earlier?
 
If Audra had given her breathtaking performance in any other season, I'd say give it to her - but I would still have to put Ebersole's brilliant tour-de-force in Grey Gardens first, and I suspect Tony voters will do the same. Besides that, Audra McDonald needs another Tony like Lindsay Lohan needs more media coverage - I know they love her, but a fifth win in 13 years is pushing it (a fact which I don't think voters will be insesnsible to).

Neither does Murphy require any more Tony attention than she has already received. She does the best she can with LoveMusik, and actually manages to give a good performance in spite of the obstacles presented by the material and the direction. If I were drafting my only personal nominations ballot in the Best Actress/Musical category, she probably wouldn't make the cut - there are five others (Ebersole, McDonald, Kristin Chenoweth, Laura Bell Bundy and Lea Michele) to whom I would give preference. I think Murphy will bump one of them when the real nominations are announced, but I can't really see her as a contender for the win.
 
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