Berlin to Broadway: A Cabaret of the Life and Songs of Kurt Weill – Review – Leeds City Varieties
By Eve Luddington, June 2018
The latest partnership production between West Yorkshire Playhouse and Opera North is a fluid blend of song and narration, portraying the life and work of Kurt Weill. It’s presented in the charming, compact setting of City Varieties.
Berlin to Broadway showcases the talent and versatility of eleven members of the Opera North chorus. They sing and dance their way through a joyous and touching celebration of Weill’s works, sharing the narration between them. I might have preferred a single narrator to maintain the flow but this is a personal niggle and my companion disagreed with me. As she pointed out, this is a fully ensemble production.
The performers are accompanied on the grand piano by their masterly musical director, Martin Pickard. Choreography, by Darren Royston, is super and works well in the informal cabaret setting. The story they narrate is the extraordinary life of Kurt Weill. The German-born son of a Jewish cantor, he lived in Berlin during the 1920s. According to Lottie Lenya, the singer with whom he shared most of his life, it was at the time ‘the most exciting city in the world’ for arts and culture. The first half of this cabaret is a selection of songs from the left-wing ‘anti-opera’ operas he created with Bertolt Brecht during those years, bold and upbeat music juxtaposed with dark lyrics.
The fizzing evening is chockful of delights. ‘Alabama Song’ from The Little Mahagonny shows the ensemble switching in seconds from the desperate to the romantic. Amy Freston and Dean Robinson present the seedy, sexy ‘Pimps’s Tango’ from The Threepenny Opera with great expression and verve. In ‘Surayaba Johhny’ from Happy End, the final Berlin song, Amy J Payne is very moving as the rejected lover of a brutish man. It’s a great finish to the first half which has charted the demise of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler and his National Socialist Party in the late 1920s.
When Hitler was elected Chancellor in 1933, the cards were on the table for Brecht, a Communist, and Weill, a Jew. They both fled Germany days after he came to power. Weill settled in New York where he was courted by left-wing theatre groups and married his wife, the singer Lottie Lenya, for the second time. He rejected all things German, refusing even to speak the language, and became an American citizen. Musically, he alighted on Broadway: where better for an ‘American’ composer who wants to connect with ordinary people?
“Vim and vigour”
‘Ice Cream’ from Street Scene opens the second half. It’s a brilliant song of many styles, from jazz to Italian Grand Opera. The ensemble attacks it with relish. And so continues the show with a heady mix of Weill’s American work, a few well-known like ‘September Song’, others much less so: ironically, his German compositions are far more enduring than the American ones. The evening ends, as it began, with ‘The Ballad of Mac the Knife’ from The Threepenny Opera.
Kurt Weill could and did write in almost any musical genre. Opera North showed, in this two-hour piece, that they can perform with aplomb, vim and vigour – in almost any musical genre. They wowed the audience. ‘Wonderful! Great,’ enthused the Australian couple in the lift afterwards. ‘A real treat,’ my companion crooned. Yes, this was truly an intoxicating evening.
images: Ant Robling