Kurt Weill’s varied score, Langston Hughes’ eloquent lyrics, a powerful book by playwright Elmer Rice, and a quality ensemble cast combine in Virginia Opera’s production of Street Scene, to create the fully realized, believable, moving universe of a multi-ethnic 1938 New York tenement block. First produced on Broadway in 1947, and now mostly mounted by opera companies, the work is a hybrid, exemplifying Weill’s objective of creating music “that is both serious and light, operatic and popular, emotional and sophisticated, orchestral and vocal,” and which “becomes a truly integral part of the play.”
In the 24 hours encompassed by the action, the key character is Rose (Maureen McKay), a young woman from the troubled Murrant family. McKay convincingly portrays Rose’s rapid and profound character arc as she expresses youthful dreams, considers the possibility of love with the boy next door, suffers sudden tragedy, and determines to follow her own path toward an uncertain future. Portraying change of this magnitude is a welcome challenge for any actor, and McKay meets the challenge. Her music, especially “What Good Would the Moon Be” and “Remember that I Care,” is sung with beauty and clarity.
Rose’s mother, Anna (Jill Gardner), also had youthful dreams of love, touchingly expressed in “Somehow I Could Never Believe,” but these have largely been crushed by her brutish husband, Frank (Zachary James). Frank is controlling, angry, loud, abusive, violent, frequently drunk, and nothing more, a cardboard villain if ever there was, with not a hint of nuance (even his final bit of self-pitying self-justification, after being caught for his crime, rings false). The physically and vocally imposing James does his best with this underwritten character, including his song of longing for traditional hierarchies, “Let Things Be Like They Always Was.”
Anna is a loving mother, both to Rose and to her young son Willie (Maxson Taxter), singing gorgeously of her faith in him in “A Boy Like You.” But she also needs a gentle touch and a kind look, which, to the horrified delight of local scandalmongers, she is apparently finding with the local milk bill collector.
The leader of the local gossip brigade is Emma Jones (Margaret Gawrysiak), who in a bravura character acting performance embodies all that can be horrifying in a mean-spirited neighbor. Her own family is no model: her husband drinks to excess, her son is a sexually harassing bully, and her “floosie” daughter Mae, in Ahnastasia Albert’s portrayal, is a spiritual cousin of Adelaide in Guys and Dolls, down to the platinum hair and accent. Mae and her sometime boyfriend Dick McGann (David Michael Bevis), have a delightful song and dance turn in “Moon-faced, Starry-eyed.”
The final major character, Sam Kaplan (David Blalock), is Rose’s sweet, kind, bookish neighbor, deeply longing for her love, expressed in the lyric, emotionally rich, “Lonely House,” but seemingly frozen into her friend zone. In the second act, responding to Rose’s desire to leave her stultifying life, Sam gets up the courage to ask her to run away with him (the duet “We’ll Go Away Together”). At the time, she gives him hope that she will, before a terrifying episode of domestic violence alters her outlook. Blalock’s diffident take on the character helps the audience to understand both why Rose finds emotional comfort in Sam and why she makes her ultimate decision concerning their relationship.
Street Scene is full of wonderful moments, too numerous to mention, but here are some highlights: Trevor Neal, as the janitor Henry Davis, singing “I Got a Marble and a Star;” Peter Kendall Clark, as Rose’s creepy boss Harry Easter, unsuccessfully trying to seduce her in “Wouldn’t You Like to Be on Broadway;” Alan Fischer as the speechifying neighborhood Marxist; a sextet praising ice cream cones, in light Italian opera style, led by Benjamin Werley as Lippo Fiorentino; two nannies pushing prams (Talin Nalbandian and Adrienne S. Kerr) who simultaneously try to calm their babies and gossip about the crime they’ve read about in the papers; and two ensemble numbers for children who express innocent hope and joy in “Catch Me If You Can” and “Wrapped Up in a Ribbon and a Bow.”
The production is top-notch musically. There were no discernable weaknesses among the singers, who performed with energy and feeling, interpreted their material with sensitivity, and maintained vocal tone appropriate to their characters throughout. Conductor Adam Turner’s 41-piece orchestra was flawless.
The representational set, credited to David Harwell of the Center City Opera Association, shows a two-story brick and stone apartment building, with windows from each apartment, in which characters appear and talk or sing from time to time. The street outside, complete with street lamps and a hydrant, is the main playing area. The costumes, credited to Aaron Chvatel of the Brevard Music School, are varied, period- and character-appropriate, and move well.
Street Scene is, both in terms of its setting and the approach to its characters, a piece of the peak of naturalism in mid-century American theater. Weill, Hughes, and Rice, like Arthur Miller, sought to depict the lives, loves, and losses of ordinary, non-elite Americans of their day. Though they come from a different neighborhood, the characters from A View from the Bridge would feel at home in the world of Street Scene.
Virginia Opera’s two-performance local run of the show concluded with a Sunday afternoon performance on October 7. There will be two more performances, October 12 and 14, at the Carpenter Theater in Richmond. This is an excellent production of an all-too-infrequently performed work; anyone in the Richmond area next weekend would find it well worth the time to attend.
Running Time: Two hours and 50 minutes.