Just because you know “September Song,” don’t assume you know Knickerbocker Holiday. Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s 1938 musical comedy extends far beyond the simple and lovely emotional and lyrical tones of that famous, quiet cry from an older man to a younger woman. As the concert at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, which plays one more performance Wednesday night, proves, there’s a bounty of riches to be found in this show. And whether they occur in the songs and the dialogue, they’re not always sweet — sometimes, in fact, they’re biting enough to make you reconsider what passes for subversive political theatre today.
At its heart, the show is a saber-tongued satire of feel-good totalitarianism, with a central tyrant that may be named Peter Stuyvesant — yes, that one, the effective patron saint of New York City — but is actually a thinly disguised Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When the Dutch governor arrives in New Amsterdam in the mid 1600s, he takes over from the powerfully ineffective town council and institutes a sweeping city of reforms that promise unending health, wealth, and happiness for everyone, provided they’re willing to submit themselves to every whim of the state (in other words, him).
Sound familiar? Well, of course that plan doesn’t go down well with Brom Broeck, a man of many trades who’s afflicted with the utter inability to take orders from others, and soon he and Stuyvesant are tussling for control of not just New Amsterdam but the hearts and minds of the proto-Americans who live there. Chief among them: Tina Tienhoven, the daughter of the former governor, who’s perfectly willing to marry Tina off to Stuyvesant to keep the peace — except for the small wrinkle that she’s already betrothed to Brom.
Entertaining as all of this can be, Anderson’s script can be long-winded and over-obvious by today’s standards, something Ted Sperling (who also directed the concert) and Edward Barnes have significantly mitigated with their tight, smart cut-down. Swiftly moving from scene to scene and from joke to joke, the dialogue sneaks and slashes without lingering long enough for impatience or, worse, common sense to make many appearances. It’s perhaps best not to dwell too much on why, for example, the Dutch town council is written as a gaggle of Dutch comics, or why exactly Washington Irving (who authored his own fictional history of New York) is a character always sitting off to the side and somehow ending up with many of the evening’s catchiest songs.
Nonetheless, Sperling and Barnes have made a solid case for the score as an underrated classic, even by Weill’s own sumptuous standards. Conducted with peaches-and-cream care by James Bagwell, the songs lilt and leap between swinging pop and classical operetta, with golden romantic compositions like “It Never Was You,” “Will You Remember Me,” and “We Are Cut in Twain” tucked in among the bouncingly inspirational “There’s Nowhere to Go But Up!”; the comically patriotic “How Can You Tell An American?” (answer: he doesn’t like being bossed around, particularly by the government); and “Scars,” about the benefits and detriments of premarital experimentation.
Sperling has assembled a crack cast, mostly drawn from the riches still to be found on Broadway. Ben Davis is a superbly sung and appealing Brom, Kelli O’Hara a luminous Tina, Christopher Fitzgerald a restrainedly zany sidekick for Brom, and Bryce Pinkham (late of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) a cunning and engaging Washington Irving. David Garrison, Michael McCormick, Brad Oscar, Steve Rosen, Brooks Ashmanskas, Jeff Blumenkrantz, and Orville Mendoza are comic perfection as the septet of bumbling councilmen.
As Stuyvesant (the role famously originated by Walter Huston), Victor Garber sings with gusto and wears his character’s authority with ease — but, at least at Tuesday night’s performance, he was so anchored to his script he almost never made a connection with you or anyone else onstage. More rehearsal would likely have helped him with this, and perhaps bestowed a bit more expectant energy to large ensemble numbers that — with the leads facing front, the orchestra behind them, and the chorus on risers behind them — often felt a bit stodgy.
These, however, are minor complaints that don’t tarnish this deceptively silvery show that contains some of Weill and Anderson’s most distinctive work for the popular American stage. Knickerbocker Holiday is undoubtedly too old-fashioned to attract broad-scale audiences in 2011, but for at least one more day it will preach a musically ingenious message of the importance of vitality and self-reliance that is, if anything, more important than it was when “September Song” was introduced so long ago.