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Lost in the Stars

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Lost in the Stars.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Though some sniff at the notion that Kurt Weill wrote anything of real worth after departing Germany, his American musicals reveal an inspiration and imagination that far outstrip any he wrote with Bertolt Brecht. From the religious spectacle of The Eternal Road and vaudevillian shtick of Knickerbocker Holiday to the sophisticated comedy of One Touch of Venus and the first fully realized concept musical Love Life, he proved that there was no idea or genre he wouldn't explore as deeply as he could. This includes Lost in the Stars, his and Maxwell Anderson's 1949 adaptation of Alan Paton's novel Cry, the Beloved Country, which contains some of his most stirring and original work. Not coincidentally, Weill is one of the few talents to emerge utterly unblemished from the City Center Encores! production, playing through Sunday.

This is not to say there's nothing else good thing about either the show or the production, which has been efficiently directed by Gary Griffin. But the Encores! concerts' general mission of preserving scores above all else ensures that you experience this one in its full, unvarnished sumptuousness. Despite Weill's dark and unusually minimal orchestration (12 pieces), his music captures native dignity, the bustle of city life, and the plangent feelings of life under assault as few compositions of the era could. The sound is unmistakably that of the South African setting as filtered through a modern urban sensibility—the right combination for arousing the passions and sympathies of an audience that at that time was still struggling with the same issues about equality that the characters were. Anderson's lyrics, alternately gritty and poetic evocations of individual and collective souls, are ideal complements.

Unfortunately, the Encores! format does not encourage or allow the proper scope or immediacy of the drama to shine consistently through, which makes this well-meaning and well-crafted show frequently very slow going. Neither Griffin nor David Ives, who's provided the particularly rocky "concert adaptation" of Anderson's book, point up the contrasts necessary to propel the action. Chief among these is the symbiotic relationship of the tribal choral leader (Quentin Earl Darrington) and Stephen Kumalo (Chuck Cooper), the simple country preacher who travels to Johannesburg to reconnect with his son and gains (and loses) more than he expected. Ideally, each personality would inform the other, the actual and the conceptual trading insights until they finally merge into a single, unified community in the show's finale.

But this requires that Stephen's journey thrust him to the center of his spiritual roots, and that never quite happens. Stephen's son, Absalom (an understated Daniel Breaker), who's arrested and tried for a murder he admits he committed, is rendered more as a symbol than a person, and is constantly imbued with importance he has little time to establish onstage. Stephen's wife (Sharon Washington) and brother (John Douglas Thompson) register briefly as major guideposts in his life, but vanish almost as soon as they appear. And both the racial strife and eventual reconciliation between Stephen and James Jarvis (Daniel Gerroll), the father of the young man (Kieran Campion) Absalom murders, pass without any identifiable conflict or tension.

The limited Encores! rehearsal period and Ives's highly variable adaptations can make densely psychological, or at least serious, works such as these feel far flimsier and less fulfilling than they should. Cooper, for example, is usually a dynamic performer and a powerful singer, but here he doesn't find the determination he needs to sell Stephen's many crises of conscience or faith. In a lilting trifle like "The Little Grey House," he's fine, but with anything weightier—the father-and-son-conflict lament "Thousands of Miles"; or particularly the sweeping title song, sung at the height of Stephen's uncertainty—his portrayal is shallow and unconvincing. A similar problem affects Sherry Boone, a vocal and interpretive powerhouse cast as Irina, but somehow adrift and unfocused whenever she sings about her absent love, Absalom (in "Trouble Man" and "Stay Well").

With more time and attention, they and their castmates would undoubtedly be able to unlock the work's myriad emotional nuances, but as it is the evening is owned by two men who aren't encumbered with so heavy a burden. The first is Jeremy Gumbs, a very young actor who stops the second act cold with "Big Mole," which he sings to a homemade digging machine (for reasons not easy to explain), capturing in the process an electric exuberance that momentarily transforms a minor character into someone of monumental importance.

The second is Darrington, who as the Leader directs the (superb) chorus through songs as diverse as the wistfully establishing "The Hills of Ixopo," the portentous "Train to Johannesburg," "The Wild Justice," and, perhaps most significantly, "Cry, the Beloved Country." In it, Darrington (who was seen a season ago as Coalhouse Walker in the short-lived revival of Ragtime) plies his supple baritone around the aching cry of a man who's letting posterity slip through his and his people's fingers, wondering whether anything new can ever really replace things that have been lost.

The number echoes with anger, regret, and unwilling acceptance, all captured in a matchless Weill tune that seems to encompass the hills and valleys of Africa and human experience alike. It's music the likes of which does not exist elsewhere in musical theatre, but reverberates through you with natural ease as it completes the story's transition from specificity to universality. Some major characters still have crucial journeys to make, but Weill has reached his destination through masterful work that, even 61 years after its debut, cries out to be heard. Encores! deserves much credit for answering that call, but this Lost in the Stars would satisfy much more if its response were not so often indistinct.

Lost in the Stars
Through February 6
City Center Mainstage, West 55th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current performance schedule:

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