thu 25/07/2024

Street Scene, Young Vic Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Street Scene, Young Vic Theatre

Street Scene, Young Vic Theatre

Kurt Weill's American opera seethes with stifled passions and broken dreams

Boiling point: Geof Dolton as the hot-tempered Frank MaurrantKeith Pattison

“A simple story of everyday life in a big city, a story of love and passion and greed and death.” That was how Kurt Weill described Elmer Rice’s 1929 play, Street Scene, set on the front stoop of a New York brownstone in sweltering summertime.

Together with lyricist Langston Hughes, the left-wing poet and writer, Weill turned the drama into a gritty 1947 American opera, setting Rice's book against a score that offered an exhilarating blend of Puccini-esque melody, bright, brassy, impudent jazz, brooding blues and sparkly Broadway showtune. Like the tenement where its struggling characters live, stacked sweatily and resentfully on top of one another in cramped, dilapidated apartments, the work teems with life.

This revival by John Fulljames for the Opera Group and the Young Vic was first seen in 2008; returning now, it has a roughness that, while it might displease operatic purists, doesn’t detract from either its defiant Big Apple swagger or its intense, brooding quality of routine deprivation and stifled dreams.

The band – for the first part of the run the BBC Concert Orchestra under musical director Keith Lockhart, later the Southbank Sinfonia Touring – are positioned within designer Dick Bird's graffiti-scarred block, festooned with lines of washing, its iron staircases rising from stained sidewalks that bisect the auditorium. Here the neighbours gather, wilting in the heat, the women vainly attempting to fan a little cool air up their sweat-sodden skirts, to share confidences or grievances, or gloat over some tasty tidbit of gossip, the nasty nourishment of lives starved of many moments of joy or pleasure.

They are a richly multicultural crowd, yet disparaging remarks about “foreigners”, “Squareheads” and “Polacks” drop casually from the sour-faced Queen Bitch of the backbiting circle, Emma Jones (an acid Charlotte Page). But the object of bilious tittle tattle is most often Anna Maurrant (Elena Ferrari), wife to violent stage-hand Frank (Geof Dolton) and mother to young tearaway Willy and his wistful sister, Rose (Susanna Hurrell). Yearning for tenderness and some respite from her existence of cowed drudgery, Anna is having an affair with the milkman, Steve Sankey (Paul Featherstone) – and almost everybody knows it. It’s only a matter of time until the dangerously volatile Frank does, too.

Meanwhile, other domestic climaxes and crises play out: a family is evicted, a young couple have their first child, and romance blossoms, with the quiet optimism of weeds growing through cracked flagstones, between Rose and Sam Kaplan, the earnest, bookish son of an elderly Jewish radical who is regarded with mistrust by the building’s other inhabitants. And children scamper everywhere, marking out this little patch of tatty turf as their own with doodles, names and slogans scrawled in white chalk. Weill’s score is as restless and lively as they are, almost cinematic in its scale.

One moment there’s a rolling blues refrain sung by the building’s soft-spoken black janitor; next, an ecstatic ode to ice cream for flamboyant Italian resident Lippo Fiorentino (Joseph Shovelton), to which, in Arthur Pita’s vibrant choreography, the cast lift their vanilla cones aloft like so many Statues of Liberty. Another stand-out sequence is supplied by the bravura song and dance sequence between Mrs Jones’ brassy daughter Mae and her boozy beau (Kate Nelson and John Moabi, pictured, above right), an explosion of shameless, high-kicking, hot-blooded sensuality lighting up a down-at-heel street.

Most memorable of all, though, are the moments when Hughes’ heartbreaking poetry comes to the fore. Anna Maurrant’s huge aria Somehow I Never Could Believe, which tells the story of a marriage begun in naiive hope, now mired in misery, is exquisitely desolate. “I don’t know,” she sings despairingly. “It looks like something awful happens/In the kitchens where women wash their dishes... the greasy soapsuds drown our wishes.” Ferrari delivers it with devastating simplicity. And Dolton’s Frank, confronting his ruined, wasted years and the awful consequences of his own violent temper, summons a fierce and tragic emotional intensity. 

The acoustics are uneven and not every step, line and note executed by the cast, which includes young community performers, is altogether in place. But this is a pungent, gutsy work of music theatre, pulsating to the relentless rhythm of irrepressible urban life.

A family is evicted, a couple have their first child, and romance blossoms, with the quiet optimism of weeds growing through cracked flagstones


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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The reviewer really is too kind here. Firstly, Street Scene is majorly flawed, neither Broadway musical nor American opera. The music is fine, sometimes great, the sung lyrics perfectly OK. But the book is just plain awful: sentimental, sloppy, predictable, banal and cliché-ridden. And far too long. The deadly dialogue is made even worse than usual because most of it is unintelligible in this production. Indeed, much of the singing is drowned out in the cavern that is the Young Vic. And the director appeared to be unaware that Brooklyn in the 1930s and 40s was by no means a multi-racial zone and the idea that a white girl could go out dancing with a black man in those days is ludicrous. Going to the theatre should be a pleasant experience. Going to the Young Vic is anything but that. The seats are uncomfortable, most offer a poor view of what passes for a stage, the acoustics are appalling, the bars are open to the public and basically one emerges in the interval to a fast-food joint. The lighting is so dim one can't read the programme (and talking of programmes, charging £2.50 for a few sheets of tatty newsprint really is a disgrace - when I complained about this to an usher, he helpfully replied I didn't have to buy one if that's how I felt about it). The management of the establishment should decide if they are running a theatre or a pub.

How harsh you are, first messager. In response - since I went back to see this fine show last night after the run a couple of years back - Street Scene is minorly, not majorly, flawed. Some of the lyrics are toe-curling, some of the numbers superfluous, but there are patches of Weill at his absolute genius best (the underscoring for the dialogue has extraordinary invention and detail). The hybrid nature was a strength, not a weakness, on Broadway, and to my mind remains so. I don't find anything banal about the resolution: desolate daughter strikes out on her own, rejects implausible soft options. Both Maurrant women, mother and daughter, were superbly portrayed last night - all you need are a strong technique and empathy with the characters (not difficult to find). You're stretching a point on the multi-racial issue when we willingly suspend our disbelief in other areas of the theatre where the performances are good enough.

As for the circumstances, don't blame the supposed 'cavern' for the sound problem, but the fact that the orchestra is playing directly out at the audience. I'd rather hear a fullish complement for Weill's masterly orchestrations and voices courageously unmiked, rather than the where's-the-voice-coming-from amplification I've heard unnecessarily engaged in the Menier. The seats seemed perfectly comfortable to me, space fine (this from a long-legged person), sightlines good everywhere I looked. You miss the point about the novel programme - it's supposed to be a broadsheet of the times. £4 would have been overpriced, but £2.50 is just fine. And the 'pub' aspect in no way impinges on your experience in the auditorium. Bah humbug!


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