Tuesday 19th June 2018 at Leeds City Varieties Music Hall.
Beginning with ‘Mack the Knife’ by torchlight, Opera North’s Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill makes a beautifully nostalgic and atmospheric arrival to the stage. From this glimpse of 1920s ambience created by Tim Skelly’s lighting design, notably reminiscent of underground caverns and the austerity of bygone eras, we are taken on a journey through the life, times and music of Kurt Weill. Billed as ‘A musical voyage’ and devised by Gene Lerner, the production has the eleven-strong ensemble take us through a whistle stop tour of the life of Weill and although the framework consists simply of contextual narrating and performances of songs, it engages and fascinates throughout.Act 1 has us in Berlin and Act 2 takes us to Broadway. 23 songs are delivered from across the Weill back catalogue; songs from The Threepenny Opera, The Little Mahagonny and Mahagonny Songspiel, Happy End, Street Scene, Knickerbocker Holiday, Lost in the Stars, Lady in the Dark and One Touch of Venus. Each cast member will recite a line or two of biography; snippets which are pithy and enlightening, giving valuable and sometimes surprising insights into the man and the time in which he lived and wrote. The well-known songs carry fresh resonance or meaning when they are interspersed with these contexts and that’s a great strength of this production. Weill lived a staggeringly varied and unsettled life, living through times of economic depression and outrageous, devastating inflation rates in Berlin; living through the disappointing love of a woman when neither could remain entirely monogamous; living as a Jewish man in the danger zone as the Nazi Regime took hold; reinventing himself as an American citizen with a taste for Broadway before returning to his lively and ethically rich political style. It was definitely a remarkable man behind this well-known and remarkable music.Although this is a strong ensemble featuring notable talents across the board, a few faces and voices stand out; Amy J Payne gives a ferocious and blistering rendition of Surabaya Johnny. Nicholas Watts’ tone is completely unlike the others on stage; gentler, warm and beautifully versatile. Lorna Jones’ performance of Polly’s Song is playful and beautiful together while Stuart Laing’s Mack the Knife glorifies the art of vibrato in every note. Amy Freston and Dean Robinson’s duet for the Pimp’s Tango is a slick and sharply choreographed performance which perfectly captures the best of this cabaret; the seamless combination of music and movement – movement from choreographer Darren Royston which is never anything beyond physical reflections of lyrics or musical styles, but movement which does just enough to elevate the musical performance (and with only a few minor moments out of step or lacking sharpness). Costumes and set from Designer Catherine Morgan also take this approach, with only basic chairs and a piano alongside token hats, fascinators or handkerchiefs taking us between ice cream store, mobster territory or ladies’ lunch.Weill is best known for the 1928 show The Threepenny Opera which still makes its way onto stages regularly and this early collaboration with Brecht remains as biting and exciting as it presumably was when it arrived – but this show takes us beyond the most famed and lasting works to those lesser known but equally talented. A fair few songs were known to me in one form or another, but it was fascinating to hear those songs as the original arrangements. Brecht’s original lyrics for Mack the Knife are mercilessly brutal – worlds away from the charmingly off the cuff version by Ella Fitzgerald I’ve loved as easy listening for years. Megan Mullally’s rendition Polly’s Song is really quite far removed from the performance of it in this production. Nina Simone’s Pirate Jenny differs in lyrics and style and Barbra Streisand’s take on Speak Low is certainly in an entirely different tone to this rendition while Bette Midler’s reimagining of Surabaya Johnny takes few original lyrics into account it would seem. So each take feels ‘new’ but of course, the versions familiar to me and perhaps you are modern renditions of an original, and I was hugely entertained to hear those songs with fresh ears.This production of Berlin to Broadway’s take on the life and works of Kurt Weill is full of charm and energy from a versatile and talented cast. Perhaps most impressive of all, aside from the powerful vocal performances, is the skilled pithiness of the narration, meaning that it never lapses into mundanity as it may well have done, but with each cast member throwing out bite-sized snippets of context with a wry smile or a somber tone before gliding off to the margins, it works beautifully. And what those narrative details allow for is to give each song its due and to force us to listen to them anew with the gravity of that contextual information at the forefront of our minds. It’s cleverly done and if you do know some of Weill’s work, this show is very much worth a trip.
Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill is presented by Opera North and West Yorkshire Playhouse in association with City Varieties Music Hall. It plays at City Varieties Music Hall until June 21st 2018 – you can find tickets here.