By Patrick O’Brien
Thanks to shifting showbiz economics, so many Broadway shows that would have had a decent shot at entering the canon are now nigh-unproducible. A piece that, say, calls for 50 actors playing 50 individual roles just isn’t feasible without serious double, triple, even quadruple-casting (and serious headaches plotting that all out). This means sometimes, it’s up to non-professional educational theatre to dust off such shows, and see if they can still tell us something.
This past weekend, ChicagolandMusicalTheatre took a road trip to the University of Wisconsin campus in Whitewater, WI to catch a rare production of Street Scene, a high musical drama directed by Chicagoan Kymberly Mellen. A history-maker as the first-ever Tony winner for Best Score, the team behind it is beyond compare: Elmer Rice, playwright and uncompromising critic of urban America’s quickening pace, adapting his Pulitzer Prize-winner of the same name; Langston Hughes, Harlem’s jazz-poet laureate; and Kurt Weill, a composer who could get a toe tapping just as much as he could touch a nerve.
Three distinct backgrounds, three unique understandings of theatre; the twain converged, and a new American opera was born. So, as any university theatre programmer must ask, why revive it? What does Mellen see in it?
For one, Street Scene is a must for anyone who needs an object lesson on slow builds. Its first act follows a day in the lives of the residents of a tumble-down New York City brownstone. Its second act brings the lives of one family — the Maurrants — to the fore, and to tragedy. The last ten minutes are a twist of the knife, and the Point. Scenic designer Eric Appleton’s papered-over facade is pushed as forward as it can, and Mellen turns an otherwise colorful panorama of city life into something up-front and claustrophobic.
For another, Street Scene contains as fine a score as any, as Weill takes European idioms to the dance hall, and Hughes’s lyrics, drawing heavily from Rice’s original words, have a perfectly unpolished sensibility. Weill considered it his masterpiece, and that assessment goes unchallenged by the merits onstage. Robert Gehrenbeck directs — an extra treat — a full pit, navigating the score with verve.
Particular highlights of the production, and performers with sturdy futures in store: Ben Swanson’s odious Maurrant giving baritone beauty to bigotry in “Let Things Be Like They Always Was;” Carly Fitzgerald’s Anna Maurrant’s yearning aria “Somehow I Never Could Believe;” and Josh Ognenoff’s Sam’s heartbreaker “Lonely House.”
Finally, Street Scene sounds sort of familiar: a great mass of people, of different backgrounds and persuasions, huddled into a tiny space, ears open and tongues poised for ruthlessness, and no pressure relief except inexplicable violence. And that big twist mentioned earlier? The opera ends as it begins, with a lazy, heat-stricken swing (“Ain’t It Awful, the Heat?”) as the pick-a-little wives and mothers of 346 once more take up the gossip that drove the Maurrants over the brink. To them, what’s one sordid drama to another?
How many others have bled or fled? How does the cycle stop? Can it be stopped?
That’s where Rice, Hughes, and Weill left us in 1946. Mellen asks: Have we answered any of those questions?
Big cast, big craftsmanship, big questions left unanswered. Take that home to ponder.
“Street Scene” closed at the Greenhill Center of the Arts, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater on March 3.