Kurt Weill: Lost in the Stars and Knickerbocker Holiday

Collegiate Chorale; Encores!

New York City, 14 February 2011 3.5 stars

Maxwell Anderson, the popular and prolific American dramatist of the first half of the twentieth century, has not fared particularly well with posterity. The author of such long-running plays as What Price Glory? (1924), Mary of Scotland (1933), Winterset (1935), Key Largo (1939), Anne of the Thousand Days (1948), and The Bad Seed (1954) has seen few of his plays, some written in blank verse, revived in recent years. The films made of his plays have endured, but only on late-night television, thanks to such exemplary stars as Katherine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, and others.

Anderson also participated in several musicals, with his next-door neighbour Kurt Weill (in New City, New York), and also one, for television, with Arthur Schwartz. It is time to state that Anderson may have been an effective playwright, but as far as his book and lyrics with Weill are concerned, he was a heavy, portentous, crusading force that had none of the lightness of Ira Gershwin and Ogden Nash, two of Weill's other, more effective lyricists.

We can chalk up part of the blame to Weill himself, who enjoyed working with Anderson, and obviously shared his political views. Weill may have thought Knickerbocker Holiday was commenting on the evils of facism in 1930s' Europe, but Anderson had another agenda as well, as he was a staunch opponent of Franklin Roosevelt, whom he thought was moving in proto-fascist directions.

Knickerbocker Holiday (1938) and Lost in the Stars (1949) have just been revived in New York, with their original orchestrations and their full choruses, and both are revealed as heavy, portentous, and crusading works. Certainly not as musically or lyrically intoxicating as Lady in the Dark or One Touch of Venus, and not as dramatically effective as Street Scene. Granted that Lost in the Stars is not remotely a musical comedy, but Knickerbocker Holiday was definitely intended to be one.

The production by the Collegiate Chorale at Alice Tully Hall of Knickerbocker Holiday, done just with lecterns and soloists, had one serious casting flaw. Victor Garber, stepping in for the announced George Hearn as Pieter Stuyvesant, gave what was essentially a riff on his recent, not very interesting, Garry Essendine in Noël Coward's Present Laughter. It was all wrong for Stuyvesant, originally portrayed by Walter Huston in 1938. There has to be a devilish force and public charm to this character, neither of which were supplied by Mr. Garber. Both are amply conveyed in the radio broadcast that Huston made, with his inimitable voice, and he also had the theatrical advantage of a wooden leg, which further increased his charm—especially when dancing! This concert version omitted the peg-leg, a bad mistake.

The rest of the cast fared decently, especially the handsome and personable Ben Davis as the recalcitrant, individualistic American hero, Brom Broeck. Kelly O'Hara, who has won accolades recently as Nellie Forbush in the successful Broadway revival of South Pacific, was Tina, courted by Stuyvesant, but eventually wed by Broeck. She is not really a comedienne (as proven by her recent appearance in the Encores! production of Bells are Ringing, where she took the role originated by Judy Holliday) but she is effective in sentimental parts and sings very well. Bryce Pinkham was a likeable Washington Irving, the narrator of this farrago. A posse of comics played the Town Elders of old Nieuw Amsterdam, and their continuous presence can only be described as hugely boring. 

Weill's score is not one of his best. Described by so many as a Gilbert & Sullivan-esque, it isn't, really. It resembles, if anything, Der Kuhhandel—minus most of the tunes. Besides "The September Song" and "It Never Was You" there was not too much else to admire, which may explain the original production's 168 performances. I did enjoy the swingy "There's Nowhere to Go But Up!" in Act I, and the first three numbers in the second act,  which reminded me of Weimar Germany. The fluidity with a more Broadway idiom that Weill had mastered by the time of Lady in the Dark is not yet present.

Lost in the Stars, as presented by Encores!, is a more moving score, with a certainly more dramatic book, based on Alan Paton's novel, Cry, the Beloved Country. The staging was more involved, but with the enormous amount of chorus work and the skeletal set, the offering resembled an staged oratorio rather than a musical. The original, staged in 1949 on Broadway, had much more realistic sets and staging, and the show ran a respectable 281 performances. I remember being more involved with a production on Broadway in the early 1970s (which was also filmed) with Brock Peters as the pastor, Stephen Kumalo.

Once again, time has not been kind to Maxwell Anderson, and the first half of the evening has a chequered, clichéd quality. Fortunately, the second act is considerably more dramatic, and the apartheid theme is wrenching, only to have been corrected a half-century later.

But there are many treasures in the score, all well-performed by an excellent cast, chorus, and smallish orchestra under Rob Berman. "Train to Johannesburg"  continues to thrill, with the clickety-clack of the train in the orchestration and its rueful lyrics. Kumalo's "Thousands of Miles", "O Tixo, Tixo, Help Me!", and the title song were spendidly delivered by Chuck Cooper. Irina, the soon-to-be-wife of the condemned man (Kumalo's son), powerfully sang her two solos, "Trouble Man" and the lovely "Stay Well". And the chorused "Cry, the Beloved Country"  had most of the audience shaken.

Other cast members at the City Center who should be mentioned are Quentin Earl Darrington, as the Leader of the chorus, and young Jeremy Gumbs, who sang with gusto a strange "comic" song called "Big Mole".  Considerably more irritating was a quasi-nightclub number in the first act, "Who'll Buy?", in which a svelte Patina Miller offered her personal charms.

Both these Weill scores are of course triumphs when compared to the awful rock- and power ballad-infested Broadway scores we usually get today. A recording will surely be made of Knickerbocker Holiday, which deserves one, so one can get to appreciate the score more fully. Whether either of these two works will be revived in full stagings in the future is another question.

By Richard Traubner

Photos of Knickerbocker Holiday: Erin Baiano