‘Berlin to Broadway’ at The In Series at Source by Jessica Vaughan


The In Series mounts another fabulous production in their stellar 2012-2013 season, tripping through 30 years of superior opera by composer Kurt Weill in his journey from Berlin to Broadway. This is billed as a cabaret revue of selected songs from his career, but it is so much more. You might say you see 12 operas for the price of one, including his arguably most famous work The Threepenny Opera, which he wrote with playwright Bertolt Brecht, his frequent collaborator. The revue also includes Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany also with Brecht, as well as One Touch of Venus and Lady in the Dark, which he wrote with American lyricists Ogden Nash and Ira Gershwin respectively.

With Alexandra Linn Desaulniers, Karen Enríquez O'Connell,  Sally Martin, Ashley Ivey, Jase Parker, Karen Enríquez O'Connell and Steve Lebens, Steve Lebens and Jase Parker. Photo by Paul Aebersold.

With Alexandra Linn Desaulniers, Karen Enríquez O’Connell, Sally Martin, Ashley Ivey, Jase Parker, and Steve Lebens, Photo by Paul Aebersold.

The In Series’ mission is to mount innovative musical programs of opera, cabaret, and more and they add another worthy performance to this incredibly strong season, their 30th. Artistic Director Carla Hubner has chosen a varied and beautiful program this season.

Kurt Weill was a German composer who came of age in the 1920s and studied in Berlin before taking refuge for a few years in Paris and then in the United States in 1935 from the Nazis – who staged a public burning of his works. His partnership with Brecht created some of strongest work of that time and this one, especially considering the political and economic turmoil surrounding them with war. When he arrived in America he was already famous and continued his stellar career until his death of heart failure in 1950.

Many of the songs chosen for this revue are playful, cheeky, and delightful, and sometimes the slightest bit dirty as Weill explores getting drunk, prostitution, jealousy, and longing. However, his strongest, more serious work is also highlighted, like pieces from Lost in the Stars about apartheid South Africa based on the novel Cry, The Beloved Country. Funny or haunting, every song is filled with pathos and truth.

Director Abel Lopez has put the six actors at cafe tales in the first row of the audience when they are not singing and the stage extends for the length of the theater for an intimate experience of these songs and the singers. He creates many small stories and moments far beyond just a recital of the famous works and creates some very clever staging to ensure all three sides of the audience are swept up in the action.

Musical Director Paul Leavitt takes to the piano for a spirited rendition of these quick and complicated songs and has guided the singers to great performances. Upright bass player Ephraim Wolfolk and accordionist Paul Aebersold accompany him. The latter is playing when the audience arrives and keeps on playing through intermission with many familiar songs from different eras all without a sheet of music. It lends an intimate, informal air to this cabaret.

The singers of course are the heart of the opera. Ashley Ivey plays the MC, guiding us through the decades and the operas in addition to tacking many numbers with his powerful tenor. Sally Martin carries her many solos with a careful and well-trained voice. It was a joy to see how much she enjoyed her songs and she even made the German sound lyrical. Most of the opera is in English, but they left one song and a few lines in the original German. She also carries a song in French. Alexandra Linn is an excellent actor as well as singer and conveys so much emotion through her voice, especially on her major solo “Pirate Jenny.”

Soprano Karen Enriquez O’Connell tackles her high and tricky runs with ease and also has an expressive face even when just listening to the other performers. Jase Parker has a polished, powerful voice that is almost too big for this intimate venue. His emotional solo “Johnny’s Song” lifted the roof. Steve Lebens smooth tones are particularly suited to the second act’s breezy American numbers and he shines in one solo piece, “September Song.” He also helps choreograph with Parker on the hilarious “Progress,” a song about the 1920s crash that is disturbingly relevant today.

Unlike many soloists, these six also work well as an ensemble. Their voices blend perfectly. The powerful song, “Cry, The Beloved Country” actually did make me cry and the men’s song “Mandalay Song,” about the only prostitute on Mandalay island made me gasp and giggle. “Mack The Knife” from The Threepenny Opera has become a one of those ubiquitous melodies that is still instantly recognizable today. Weill was nothing if not versatile. All together, it makes for a rare and precious look at a creator’s body of work with an ensemble that can do it justice.

The costumes by Donna Breslin offer an excellent contrast between Berlin and America with somber, conservative outfits for the first act in beiges and browns, to the more colorful, flirty, and dramatic outfits of the next decade.

Osbel Susma-Pena adapted the set from another set by A.J. Guban. He turns the theater into a weathered courtyard with columns and a stone patio that stretched the length of the audience with cafe tables among the seats for a very informal, friendly staging of the work. The lighting design by Roberto Gato Echanique is a masterpiece in keeping everyone in the light as they travelled the length of the theater and up into the seats. It also lends a nostalgic tone to the play.

With Alexandra Linn Desaulniers, Karen Enríquez O'Connell, Sally Martin, Ashley Ivey, Jase Parker, and Steve Lebens, Photo by Paul Aebersold.

With Alexandra Linn Desaulniers, Karen Enríquez O’Connell, Sally Martin, Ashley Ivey, Jase Parker, and Steve Lebens, Photo by Paul Aebersold.

One of the best parts of a revue is that you can trace the development of an artist from his early excitement to his heyday to his mastery in his later years and Weill was that rare artist that did continue to improve and explore styles from everywhere he landed. He lived an incredible life and made some incredible music and died far too young.

The In Series plays a fitting tribute to this musical great with this retrospective that is funny, moving…to tears, and just plain fun.

Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

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Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill plays through March 10, 2013 at Source — 1835 14th .St. NW, Washington, DC, 20009. For tickets call 202-204-7763 or purchase them online.

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