There are three prime contenders for the title of "The Great American Opera." Two are familiar. Porgy and Bess is a pure opera, using idiomatically American music composed by one of America's greatest writers of show tunes, George Gershwin. West Side Story is an operatically dramatic Broadway show, with music composed by one of America's great classical maestros, Leonard Bernstein. The third and least-known candidate, Street Scene, written in 1946 by German immigrant composer Kurt Weill, is the final production of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' 2006 season. A creature halfway between opera and Broadway, it will satisfy your craving for a meaty, beaty, big and bouncy musical show as long as you don't need a happy ending.
Three giants collaborated on Street Scene. Elmer Rice, a realist playwright, won the 1929 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the original (nonmusical) version of the play. Rice collaborated with Weill on its 1947 conversion to an opera, so most of the dialogue was lifted directly from his powerful original script. Rice and Weill brought in Langston Hughes, the gifted poet and folklorist of the Harlem Renaissance, to write the lyrics. Hughes' fine ear for plain talk combined with the rhythmic sense of a poet to create songs that sail easily on the sometimes dense sea of Weill's music.
Weill, the son of a synagogue cantor, grew up studying to be a serious composer. He trained with composers Humperdinck and Busoni, conducted for the opera house in Desau and was considered one of the great young composers of pre-World War II Europe. In the 1920s he teamed up with lyricist and playwright (and poet) Bertolt Brecht on some of the most successful productions of the period, most notably The Threepenny Opera, which featured their big hit, "Mack the Knife." Brecht and Weill, a Communist and a Jew, were living the high life in Berlin when Hitler took over. They fled to France.
Weill was much less successful in France because the French found his work too German. With the Nazis marching on Paris, he emigrated to the U.S. He had learned his lesson. He soaked up American music. He ditched the European art aesthetic and strove to make music that would connect emotionally with everyday people. The tunes in Street Scene combine a little jazz, a little blues and a little boogie-woogie with elements of uptown show music and downtown cabaret styles. Weill even shows off his mastery of American idiom by throwing in New York City playground chants as themes in the opening number in the second act. All of this is underpinned by a feisty score that could serve as background music to an edgy Hitchcock film.
Street Scene is set in the late 1940s, on a very hot day in a rotten section of a poor neighborhood in New York. The story revolves around the intertwined lives of the immigrant families who share a tenement apartment house. Set and costume designer Bruno Schwengl provides a brownstone stoop populated with men and women straight out of an Edward Hopper painting. The broiling heat brings out mistrust, gossip, fistfights, spousal abuse, lust and finally murder and tragedy.
Street Scene is a major undertaking. Its 22 musical numbers call for 32 named characters most of whom sing and dance another handful of unnamed characters, plus a dozen children who also sing and dance and, in OTSL's production, a Shih Tzu named Madeleine Noel who appears less than thrilled with the whole thing.
Director James Robinson moves the crowds, the couples and individuals smoothly through the show. OTSL gave him a good balance between operatic singers for the more classical-sounding parts and what he calls "belters" for the jazzier stuff. Carolyn Betty and Jeffrey Wells as Mrs. Maurrant and her murderous husband and Jennifer Aylmer as their daughter, Rose, stand out among the former. Among the belters, Gloria Parker as the nosy neighbor and Garrett Sorenson as an elderly Jewish socialist agitator turn in performances worthy of old-time Hollywood character actors. Robinson has a light touch and manages to inject the occasional infusion of welcome levity. Better yet, the production allows a number of OTSL's young artists to step out of the chorus and show off. It's an effort that's tightly staged and entertaining.