It is not surprising that Kurt Weill’s Street Scene has never been performed on Broadway since its opening in 1947, despite winning a Tony for Best Score. The huge cast of over 30 roles, plus chorus, made it commercially unviable, though regularly performed by opera companies around the world. Weill, as a recent immigrant to New York, was fascinated with his adopted city and community, wanting to embrace not only the new language of English, but also the musical language of the jazz and blues rhythms that were to create a new American genre – musical theatre. A composer ahead of his times, Street Scene offers a sublime score but it is not an easy work to stage, dramatically requiring both strong acting and dance skills as well as operatic singing. Many of the characters are speaking roles, some require trained classical singing, while others, including the ensemble, need to dance.
This appears to be a marvellous work for a conservatorium to stage, offering a huge number of roles for a large student body, yet it is challenging on so many levels. While this production by Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University offered many positives including experience for the students involved, it was clearly a steep learning curve which a number failed to negotiate. Both casting and the delivery of the musical style exposed some obvious weaknesses.
The production was impressive, offering a set that could easily have worked for West Side Story, with its projected huge cityscapes of 1940s Brooklyn tenement buildings on the main walls, with scaffolding representing various levels of apartments. These were well utilised in the staging. Designer Adam Gardnir, did a splendid job creating the claustrophobic atmosphere of life in such stifling conditions, particularly during the heat of a New York summer. His 1940s costume designs, hairstyles and wigs were also spot on, the girls wearing a marvellous display of pretty period dresses with men in suits and hats.
Michael Gow’s direction was intelligently considered and for the most part cleverly staged, helping to identify the different characteristics of the various multi-racial families, as well as the tensions and relationships building up in such communities. The two plotlines of the growing love between the young Rose Maurrant and the bookish Sam Kaplan, and the drama of the extra-marital affair between her mother, Anna, and a neighbour, Steve Sankey, were well developed. Gow also drew some fine stage pictures with both small groups of neighbours, as well as ensemble gatherings, the larger cast each having individual characterisations.
What worked less well was sufficient emphasis on the strong dance elements in this work. Movement seemed to be limited to a few tame dance numbers by smaller groups and the ensemble. The two musical theatre students, Carla Beard as Mae Jones and Sean Johnson as Dick McGann, who enacted the well-known choreographed song and dance Moon-faced, Starry-eyed added a much-needed level of energy to the piece. This stood out as something separate to the rest of the staging, rather than being intrinsic to the work as a whole as Weill surely intended.
A major problem for the cast was a lack of any amplification or a surtitles screen to impart the storyline to an audience. While the work is sung in English, it is often difficult to understand the lyrics of songs in many opera productions, especially with heavily orchestrated scores, so surtitles are very helpful. The audience might then have appreciated both the dialogue and the wonderful poetic lyrics, expressing so clearly universal themes of love and loss, drama and ambitions. Almost none of the dialogue and spoken lines could be heard, and it was equally difficult to catch more than a few short snatches of the lyrics, making microphones essential in a work of this type. Understanding who all the characters were at the beginning, and how they fitted together, was a real challenge for the audience, however beautifully the cast sang.
There were some promising and excellent voices in the cast. As Rose Maurrant, Lucy Stoddart’s lyric soprano was sweet and heartfelt. Dramatic soprano, Sara Donnelly, as her mother, Anna, sang with passion and warmth, offering a fine rendition of Somehow I Never Could Believe. Tom Nicolson the abusive husband, Frank, was suitably surly, his first-rate baritone and terrific top notes used to great effect in Let Things Be Like They Always Was. Their collective trio, There’ll Be Trouble, was impressively delivered. James Scott as Rose’s love-interest, Sam Kaplan, was suitably gauche and understated though his tenor struggled to make the required impact in the glorious solo Lonely House, managing the duets with Rose Remember that I Care and We’ll Go Away Together much better. The range of neighbours that included gossipy women and drunk men were well characterised. Additionally, Dallas Tippet offered a touching performance as the Janitor, singing I Got a Marble and a Star while there was a fun, if over-the-top performance by Ji Zhang as Italian violin teacher Lippo Fiorentino, as he distributed ice-creams in the Ice-Cream Sextet.
Under Johannes Fritzsch’s assured baton, the Conservatorium Symphony Orchestra played this complex score with verve and a technical assurance of a high quality. The short overtures to both acts were beautifully played, showing us all the tension, drama and emotion of the work to come. Perhaps there was a tendency to underplay the power of the score, in order that the singers could be heard sufficiently above the orchestra. But otherwise, it was an impressive rendition and interpretation. Special mention should be made of the exceptionally well played on-stage trumpet of Matthew Eisenmenger during Moon-faced, Starry-eyed.