Vintage revival hits the spot
New York in the 1940s is brought vividly to life in a revived production of Street Scene at the Young Vic. Brilliantly directed by The Opera Group’s John Fulljames, this American Opera, as the composer Kurt Weill referred to it, brings together an 80-strong cast who together recreate life in the street outside a tenement building on the Lower East Side.
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Street Scene is based on a play by Elmer Rice, with lyrics by the Harlem poet Langston Hughes. It premiered in Philadelphia before transferring to Broadway in 1947. Weill, whose Threepenny Opera and song recordings by Lotte Lenya are probably better known, was interested in writing in a way that combined the musical qualities of European opera and Broadway musicals, and Street Scene achieves just this. In it we can detect Puccini, Gershwin, snatches of Benjamin Britten and echoes of Richard Rodgers. Classical arias are integrated with blues and jazz to create a sound environment as complex as the ethnicities and cultural backgrounds of the inhabitants of this poor and overcrowded area of the city.
The ensemble performance is wonderfully invigorating, helped by the assured contribution of children drawn from local community groups and schools. It is invidious to mention specific performances, but particular mention should be made of Geof Dolton as the angry, brutish and alienated Frank Maurrant and Elena Ferrari, his wife. Ferrari’s voice brought just the right amount of pathos to a role that risks slipping into melodrama. Joseph Shovelton as Lippo Fiorentino was every bit the Caruso one suspects he would have preferred to be in another life, and Kate Nelson (Mae Jones) and John Moabi (Dick McGann) raised the roof with their dancing.
Street Scene is a remarkable piece of theatre. The music, the play and the lyrics all combine to give a compelling account of what it must have been like for immigrant families trying to survive in New York at that time, especially for the women. Although there are weaker aspects (the elderly Jewish Communist, Abraham Kaplan, is more of a cypher for a political message than a fully-rounded character), I was struck by the way playwright, lyricist and composer achieved through wise words and dazzling music an opera that combines a strong and resonant political message with romance, pathos and the importance of love, friendship and mutual respect for difference.
Until 1 October, Young VIc, The Cut, London. then touring until 15 October
Review: Matthew Weait
Photo: ©ALASTAIR MUIR
For details and tickets click here.