Young Vic outperforms London’s opera houses with Street Scene

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Kurt Weill, Street Scene: Soloists, Lewisham Choral Society and BBC Concert Orchestra / conducted by James Lockhart (conductor), Young Vic, London, 20.9.2011. (JPr)

Young Vic Opera Production of Weil’s Street Scene (c) Keith Pattison

Last week, London’s two flagship operatic warhorses, the Royal Opera and English National Opera, went virtually head-to-head with the opening nights of their new seasons leaving one of them clearly ahead on points. However the knock out comes in the form of this amazing evening at the Young Vic that is streets ahead(!) of that mighty competition – and perhaps is put on with the merest fraction of their budgets.

If you want to see music theatre at it very best this will be for you. It boasts a talented, flexible, hard-working ensemble taking on multiple roles alongside the best group of child actors I have ever seen; all backed up by the a full orchestra and chorus, as well as, clear, simple, staging – Street Scene, Kurt Weill’s 1947 ‘Broadway Opera’, should not be missed.

The Young Vic has been much renovated since I last went there too many years ago than I care to remember but it still has a slightly shambolic student theatre feel about it. Aptly they put this Street Scene on first in 2008 as a co-production with Kings College London-based The Opera Group. There was only a limited run but it still won the Evening Standard Award for Best Musical and is now revived for a longer run followed by a small tour.

Dick Bird’s single skeletal set shows the girders of the rundown tenement façade and is dressed with little more than two sets of steps, clotheslines, dustbins, chalk graffiti and a runway through the audience. It all suits the work well, as do the suitably period costumes. (The excellent James Lockhart and hisBBCConcert Orchestra are initially a very visible presence but seem to fade into the background as the evening goes on.) John Fulljames, the stage director, moved the singers around the stage very naturalistically concentrating on the real drama in lives of the ethnically-mixed residents. Only occasionally in the bigger ‘production numbers’ such as the boisterous ‘Ice Cream Sextet’ and the extended song-and-jive sequence (‘Moon-faced, Starry-eyed’) between the wonderfully lithe pairing of Kate Nelson and John Moabi as Mae Jones and Dick McGann, does the artifice of musical theatre shine through.

Weill wrote about Elmer Rice’s original 1930’s play that ‘It was a simple story of everyday life in a big city, a story of love and passion and greed and death. I saw great musical possibilities in its theatrical device – life in a tenement house between one evening and the next afternoon. And it seemed like a great challenge to me to find the inherent poetry in these people and to blend my music with the stark realism of the play.’ And along with lyricist, Langston Hughes, he aimed to create musical theatre that would ‘integrate drama and music, spoken word, song, and movement’. Though it is bit clunky in places he more or less succeeded and it clearly influenced later musicals like Cabaret, Chicago and the works of Stephen Sondheim.

Kurt Weill’s score is perhaps a little too eclectic in its influences and lacks the cutting edge of his Threepenny Opera, but approached as seriously as this it is still a musically extraordinary work. Moments of parody come and go as the work unfolds: there are moments of Italian opera from Puccini and Mascagni (that now makes me think of Lloyd Webber); there is even some Wagner, many hints of Gershwin, some spirituals, jazz and blues references, plus some early Weill. I was also strongly reminded of ‘The Tenement Symphony’ from the Marx Brothers’ 1941 film ‘The Big Store’.

However, all these elements seem to perfectly match the hopes or malaise of the various characters we encountered in a story that descends into a diatribe of jealousy, much bitterness and lots of disenchantment. It takes place over the two days in New York’s East Side summer of 1946. It begins with the neighbours in Number 346 complaining about the heat, but soon they are gossiping about Mrs Maurrant, who is believed to be having an affair with Steve Sankey, the milkman. Anna Maurrant actually is not a brazen adulteress, but rather a desperately lonely woman in an abusive marriage and her husband is one of a number of bullies we see. Her daughter Rose is quietly desperate to get away from this stifling (in more ways than one) atmosphere. She wards off – possibly only temporarily – the attention of her married boss, then rebuffs a loutish neighbour and would love to escape with Sam Kaplan, her bookish admirer. Rose seems pre-destined to have any hint of happiness slip from her grasp, so when her father murders Sankey and her mother, she waves goodbye to Sam and the neighbourhood – but the world continues to turn and so life goes on for those left behind.

It’s difficult to mention individual names and roles as most of the cast were seen in various guises but the strongest presences were Eleni Ferrari as Anna Maurrant, Susanna Hurrell as Rose and Paul Curievici as the nerdy Sam who was clearly based on a young Woody Allen. They will probably never film Street Scene but Woody Allen would be the ideal director as its story seems also to have inspired some of his more serious films. Some voices were slow to warm up at the start of the evening but all the singers, young and old, both dramatically and vocally – and with good American accents – conveyed their characters’ desires and disappointments eloquently. Weill gives wonderful solo moments to a good many of the neighbours and the score’s real charms lies in those ensemble scenes that were sung with precision and great enthusiasm. Also notable in the large cast were Geof Dolton as Frank Maurrant, Joseph Shovelton as Lippo Fiorentino, Simone Sauphanor as Greta Fiorentino, and Oscar O’Rahilly as Willie. The latter must be the youngest method actor I have ever seen and was as morose during his curtain call as he was as the Maurrants’ youngest son, Willie.

Some consider Street Scene a flawed work and that is often given as the reason why it is not put on more regularly – indeed it has never been revived on Broadway since first put on in 1947 and I have only seen it once before put on by English National Opera in 1992 – given such a polished and powerful staging as this it is irresistible and deserves to be seen … and more often.

My closing comment is that this performance was recorded for later transmission on BBC Radio 3 and the management was at pains to point out that microphones were being used for the recording and not amplification. Actually some amplification would have been useful as in the reverberant warehouse-like Young Vic too many of Langston Hughes’s potent lyrics couldn’t be heard.

Jim Pritchard