In a cozy, spirited talk-back after the Saturday evening performance of the musical LoveMusik, playwright Alfred Uhry described the joint effort between Balagula Theatre and Bluegrass Opera as the “perfect vehicle” for telling the fascinating love story of composer Kurt Weill and his wife Lotte Lenya.
Director Rachel Rogers’ scaled-down, Brechtian vision of the show is certainly a fitting mode in which to artistically examine the odd and epic nature of love and music.
While the show has many strengths — Rogers’ engrossing portrayal of Lenya, the Brechtian stylization that gives the work meaningful context and color, the wildly diverse grand tour of Weill’s place in the 20th century canon of music literature, to name a few — it is ultimately undermined by uneven acting and tepid musical performances.
The play begins with the couple’s wildly unconventional courtship in pre-WWII Germany and details their emigration to the U.S. because of Weill’s Jewish background, as well as their subsequent efforts to revive their careers (Lenya was an actress) stateside. For fans of musicals, music history and all things Broadway, the play offers interesting insights into the life of one of Broadway’s most important composers via his romance with Lenya. For everyone else, there is a not-quite-old-fashioned love story.
Rogers, who both directs and acts, drives the momentum of the show as Lenya, bringing her to life with a German accent and the wide, free, confident movements of a woman who wants what she wants, is who she is and isn’t afraid to baldly say so. Weill (Lorne Dechtenberg) accepts Lenya’s multiple affairs as the new normal — he needs her for his music and it is easy to see why. Rogers is an actress at the top of her game; her captivating choices highlight Lenya’s oscillating strengths and vulnerabilities. One gets the sense that nothing is safer to her than risk and nothing riskier than safety. She is indeed an “odd bird” as Rogers calls her in her director’s notes, but a fascinating one.
It’s not totally surprising that Dechtenberg’s performance as Weill is less magnificent than Rogers’. Dechtenberg, who also serves as the show’s musical director, is coming from the “singers who act” camp versus Rogers’ “actors who sing” camp, but the difference in quality is palpable and continually works against the integrity of the show. Granted, Weill is something of a shy music nerd, so his character does not by nature pack the punch that insatiable Lenya does. But that is the challenge of the role. The result is an uncomfortable unevenness between the pair that weighs down the show and keeps the audience from connecting to the very character whose music it is celebrating.
Speaking of music, the 10-piece orchestra, boldly situated on stage to appropriate Brechtian effect, had the difficult task of bringing to life more than two dozen of Weill’s most iconic numbers, spanning his career as the composer behind a diverse lineup of great 20th century lyricists, from Bertolt Brecht to Ira Gershwin to Langston Hughes to Ogden Nash, among others. It’s a feat that they pull off with apparent ease if not enthusiasm.
The evening’s most indulgent performance goes to Pete Sears in his turn as Bertolt Brecht. Sears all but wears a Chesire grin as he wryly portrays the hygiene-challenged playwright and poet who sees Weill’s Broadway success as selling out. A second act supporting appearance by Robert Parks Johnson as George Davis also livens up the stage. Melissa Ratliff, Eryn Dailey-Demby, Jim Smith and Drew Sutherland also inject warmth and color in their supporting roles in what Rogers calls a “weird Greek chorus.”
This is a peculiar show and its success hinges on letting it be as peculiar as it wants to be. As such, Rogers’ vision is indeed the “perfect vehicle” for it, as Uhry said, but a few lapses between vision and execution prevent it from achieving its potential.
What: Alfred Uhry's musical play about Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, presented by Balagula Theatre and Bluegrass Opera.
When: 7 p.m. Nov. 19-21; 2 p.m. Nov. 22.
Where: Farish Theater, Lexington Public Library, 140 E. Main St.
Tickets: $25 general admission; $15 students
Online: Bluegrassopera.org, Balagulatheatre.org.
Call: (859) 338-4323