It is nearly 20 years since Kurt Weill’s Street Scene was last seen in London. I saw that English National Opera production on 9 November 1989 and, before the show, a spokesperson for the theatre announced front of curtain that the Berlin Wall was, at that moment, being dismantled.
The mix of an exiled Berliner with communist connections, whose most Americanised work was being put before a bourgeois London audience, as the Soviet Union began its inevitable crumble, made for a confused but heady atmosphere. The Opera Group had no such backdrop for this revival, meaning we can focus on the work itself rather than get caught up in the whirlwind of resonances whipped up on that historical day.
Weill’s score already violates expectations, pulling the rug from under anyone familiar with the great works he had created alongside Bertolt Brecht, including Mahagonny, The Threepenny Opera and Happy End. What he serves up instead are lush orchestrations, huge dollops of sentimentality and a story lurching from one clich to another. Which is not to say it’s bad the score is masterly but it wholeheartedly embraces the standard conventions of American musical theatre, which draws from The Opera Group a lot of generalised emoting, cod accents (Bronx, Italian, Irish, German, Jewish) and less-than-slick musical comedy set-pieces.
Set in a New York tenement block on a hot Summer’s day in the 1940s, we see the comings and goings of a host of recognisable types: the brutish drunken father, the wife yearning for affection outside the family, pure young daughter, bookish college boy wanting to leap the bounds of an ordinary life, an Irish policeman and a wealth of immigrant types all jostling together in a sweltering melting pot. Act Two sees the emotin’ go into overdrive, culminating in a “moider” (a “dubble moider” in fact), before the community falls back into the ebb and flow of everyday life.
Like the Candide a decade later of the emerging young composer Leonard Bernstein, Weill leaps from one genre to another and we get an operettaish eulogy to ice cream, a full-blown Rogers and Hammerstein number with girls in white dresses, Gershwinesque crooning and jazzy rhythms drawn from the street culture of the time.
John Fulljames’ production uses the slenderest of means to suggest the sticky drabness of New York’s inner city, but it’s enough. Dick Bird’s simple setting consists of little more than a pair of steep stairs and walkways shooting off in different directions, which allows a constant flow of activity from a massive cast in an unhindered staging.
Audibility isn’t always the best, less to do with the volume of the sizeable and exposed orchestra, kept under reins by conductor Patrick Bailey, but more a general weakness of voices and poor clarity, even in the spoken dialogue. Ruby Hughes sings prettily and Adrian Dwyer lustily as the soppy young couple and there’s some sporadic fine belting, that finds the right balance between the operatic and the freer style of musical theatre. But it’s only in Kate Nelson and John Moabi’s dance number that we start to approach the exuberance and style needed to compensate for the wafer-thin characterisations and standardised situations.
If Street Scene proves a little beyond The Opera Group, a visit is recommended, just in case it’s another two decades before the work is seen again in the capital. You’ll hear a very different Kurt Weill, with a score that deserves to be better known than it is, although I sure did miss the dissonant glories and dramatic weight of the great Brecht collaborations.