In staging a Musicals in Mufti version of Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill: A Musical Voyage, The York Theatre Company took a calculated risk. Fortunately, that risk has paid off handsomely. This concert version of the revue excels in all ways, from casting to direction to music direction, with the result being a fast-paced and thoroughly entertaining evening of prime Kurt Weill. There’s enough tasty meat on this musical bone to satisfy even the most rabid of Weill-ites, presenting the composer’s greatest theater songs through music and story, covering an amazing body of work. The aforementioned risk involved is that Weill’s music isn’t easy. His compositions, especially from the Berlin period, are harmonically and rhythmically complex. Moreover, the peerless sets of lyricists who worked with Weill are masters whose literate words require sharp acting skills to adequately communicate. Happily, in Karl Josef Co, Rachel De Benedet, Michael Halling, Meghan Picerno, and Brian Charles Rooney, Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill: A Musical Voyage has a group of actors who have not only the skills but the commitment to the work, which score a high average of successes with the material. Weill had two periods, each stylistically distinct: the first in Germany in the 1920s, and the second in the United States after his emigration in 1935 (until his death in 1950). Any cast of Berlin to Broadway…. has to transition seamlessly from Act One (Berlin) to Act Two (America). For the most part, this cast does, with the very slight exceptions of Picerno and Co, whose fresh-scrubbed, buoyant personas suit them far better for the lighter American experience than the gritty, brittle, dissonant and harsh style of the Weimar period.
Picerno, a coloratura soprano who has only recently stepped off the opera stage into musical theater, fared best when soloing on numbers best suited to her voice, such as “In Our Childhood’s Bright Endeavor” (Happy End, English lyric by Michael Feingold) and the lyrical “My Ship” (Lady in the Dark, lyric by Ira Gershwin). Co gamely sang through Act One, and was the weaker link with Michael Halling on the demanding “Bilbao Song” (Happy End/Feingold). Co shone in Act Two with “Hymn to Peace” (Johnny Johnson, lyric by Paul Green) and “Lonely House” (Street Scene, lyric by Langston Hughes). Halling, whose sure voice and confident presence mostly anchored group numbers, such as “Alabama Song” (The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, English lyric by Arnold Weinstein) and “Speak Low” (One Touch of Venus/Nash). Given the spotlight on “September Song” (Knickerbocker Holiday, lyric by Maxwell Anderson), Halling was sheerly stunning. Technically “too young” for the song, he transcended that and delivered the goods with convincing and aching poignancy – an arrow shot straight to the heart.Rounding out the cast were the two featured players, Rachel de Benedet and Brian Charles Rooney, who brought flair to the revue. She marvelously sang “Barbara Song” and “Pirate Jenny” (both from The Threepenny Opera, English lyrics by Marc Blitzstein) but missed with the very difficult “Surabaya Johnny” (Happy End/Feingold) in her over-wrought delivery; it’s a passionate song, but is best played with controlled anger and nuanced restraint. Rooney, as the Guide, was tasked with the connective narrative of the revue, which he undertook with appropriate shading, a sense of fun and total commitment. He was in concentrated character throughout and also got to demonstrate the range of his flexible voice with “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” (One Touch of Venus) and in group numbers, such as “Mandalay Song” (Happy End/Feingold).
A huge chunk of the success of the production goes to director Pamela Hunt, whose insights into the piece ensured brisk pacing and smart staging. Berlin to Broadway…. is the kind of largish piece that can quickly become unwieldy and bog down in the wrong hands. She skillfully avoided the pitfalls. Additionally, her directing is as much choreography, which translates to pleasing, fluid movement around the real estate of the stage. Hunt’s costuming suggestions and clever bits of business also added color to the revue. Also deserving of extremely high praise is music director Eric Svejcar who turned his piano into a symphony orchestra with lush, passionate playing as well as one hundred percent full-throttle commitment.
Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill: A Musical Voyage originally opened at the Theatre de Lys (now The Lucille Lortel) in Greenwich Village on October 1, 1972 and played for 152 performances. Since The York Theatre’s Musicals in Mufti series is aimed at showcasing neglected but worthy works, it’s time this revue had a second chance with a long, extended run in an updated fully-staged version.
Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill: A Musical Voyage plays through February 19th as follows: Wednesday at 7:00 p.m., Thursday 2:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s (entrance on East 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue).