BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
by Laura Hitchcock
Tribute is too decorous a word for Jonathan Eaton's remarkable compilation of Kurt Weill's songs making its West Coast debut at The Odyssey Theatre. Eaton, currently Artistic Director of the Opera Theatre of Pittsburgh, sets his scene some time ago in a brooding riverside bar where six diverse characters wait for the boat to Youkali (a metaphor for Utopia).
Although the German-born Weill has classical training, symphonies and ballets to his credit, he's best known for the new musical language he forged with playwright Bertolt Brecht. Before their work so outraged the Nazis that they had to flee the country, they created such works as Threepenny Opera (1928) and The City of Mahagonny (1930). In America Weill wrote film scores but preferred Broadway. Among his classic musicals are Lost in the Stars, Lady in the Dark, and One Touch of Venus.
Eaton's characters embody many of the themes in Weill's atonal songs with lyrics n by masters of the game, like the Gershwins, Alan Lerner, Langdon Hughes, Maxwell Anderson and Ogden Nash. There's exotic Jenny who sings "Pirate Jenny"; wry Freddy who handles the patter songs like "I'm Your Man" handsome youthful Jimmy whose ballads range from "Lonely House" to "Speak Low"; delicate damaged Madelon who gives us "My Ship"; a capella, sadistic black-clad Johnny whose violence ends in the haunting "Wie Lange Noch?" and his moll Lilli, in a Marlene Dietrich trouser suit, who belts out "Surabaya Johnny".
The excellent cast is spear-headed by Ramon McLane as a clever shabby Freddy who'd be perfectly at home in a Woody Allen movie and Sandy Mulvihill as the kind of fragile tough girl born to sing the blues. The ensemble is vocally well-balanced. Under director Rob Walker's attention to well-paced style and Sean Paxton's musical direction, they do rousing justice as a chorus to "Bilbao Song, The Saga of Jenny" and . . . . The selection also includes seldom-heard songs.
Eaton has even managed linking dialogue that, while not a story, makes effective use of the generic characters and generates tension and pace even though the incidents are used mainly to launch songs. The major source of conflict is knife-toting Johnny whose attack on Lilli is diverted by a company rendition of "Mack the Knife". Johnny also torments Madelon, attacks Jimmy and, true to form, decides he's not meant for Utopia. Lilli remains behind with the others. But, as the show closes, none of them are sure they're ready for Utopia or even where it is. They each deliver lines that echo their particular obsessions. It's a very Brechtian touch.
Jaret Sacry has designed the kind of well-worn mahogany bar that you'd love to spend a lot of time in. Bill Lee's character-based costumes do a wonderful job of developing Eaton's concept.. The line should form to the right now that Weill is back in town.