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Review: ‘Lost in the Stars’ at Theatre 3


by Jerome Weeks 28 May 2009

Akin Babatunde’s singing of the aching title song from Lost in the Stars is far from perfect. But there’s real emotional power here. Babatunde’s weathered, majestic presence is one of the great pleasures of Theatre 3’s current production of Lost in the Stars. The production is also far from perfect. But it’s a valiant and ambitious effort.

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[music: “Lost in the Stars”]

Akin Babatunde’s singing of the aching title song from Lost in the Stars is far from perfect. But there’s real emotional power here. Babatunde’s weathered, majestic presence is one of the great pleasures of Theatre 3′s current production of Lost in the Stars.

The production is also far from perfect. But it’s a valiant and ambitious effort. Composer Kurt Weill is still best known for The Threepenny Opera. But after fleeing the Nazis, Weill created a handful of unconventional shows for Broadway. In 1949, for instance, Lost in the Stars premiered as a “musical tragedy” — perhaps the first to be designated officially. The Broadway critics at the time took note, and several didn’t know quite what to make of such a thing.

The show is rarely revived partly because it has the operatic scale of Porgy and Bess. Weill orchestrated Lost in the Stars for more than 60 musical instruments — without using any violins. And when opera companies have revived it, they’ve had choruses of up to 48 people. That’s almost twice the size of the entire cast at Theatre 3.

Understandably, to reduce Lost in the Stars to fit Theatre 3, director Jac Alder and musical director Terry Dobson use a two-piano version (augmented with a chime solo by Dobson). Obviously, this depletes some of the music’s splendors (when the orchestration includes an accordion and the musical styles include blues and jazz, it’s clear Weill was after all sorts of riches). This production could have been one of those stripped-down Encores! concert versions, but Alder has given a more complete, multi-level staging with wood and corrugated metal, suggesting tables and jails and the ramshackle township housing. Alas, this means there’s no room for dancing. Dancing feeds life into a musical, and at three hours long, Lost in the Stars could use a little energy drink.

In 1949, the show was also daring in its treatment of race – at a time when Jim Crow still ruled much of America (in fact, Jim Crow prevented the musical from an extensive tour). Lost in the Stars is based on Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton’s novel about South Africa (hardly an obscure work these days — it was an Oprah Book Club selection). The musical uses that big chorus, split into blacks and whites, to embody the country’s racial rift.

Babatunde plays a Zulu village minister, Stephen Kumalo. His son, Absalom, left home for work in the mines but has disappeared in Johannesburg. Kumalo searches for him, only to learn that Absalom has been arrested for shooting a wealthy white man during a botched robbery. In effect, it’s the story of the Prodigal Son who doesn’t return.

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(L to r) Babatunde, Cedric Neal, Terry Vandivort

But the show’s racial politics are actually pretty simple. The white characters, good or bad, are mostly cardboard. Terry Vandivort plays the murdered man’s bitter father with sharp vividness, but he’s the only one who personifies and articulates apartheid. So sometimes it seems as if he’s the only one standing in the way of racial harmony. If the struggle for human rights were only that easy: Just change the heart of one man.

Against these weaknesses, we have Babatunde’s performance and Weill’s marvelous music, which still comes through. We have Liz Mikel, who uncorks a saucy number as a juke joint singer, and we have Cedric Neal as Absalom. Neal seems OK in the first act, nothing special, but then he does justice to a searing song in Act 2: “Wild Justice.”

Several critics have said Theatre 3’s production proves Lost in the Stars can be revived successfully as a musical. Perhaps. But to me, it still feels more like an opera — ironically, more like an opera than The Threepenny Opera does, which seems much more musical-like. Lost aims to be stern and profound and moving on both a grand and human scale, it wants to be as simple as a village tale, much like Paton’s novel itself.

It’s a remarkable work, coming from a period that’s often seen as an age of ‘classic’ shows, an age that was actually full of experiment and ferment (Weill’s Street Scene, Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, Allegro and South Pacific). But I think it needs more energy, more flavor. There needs to be a sense of all the human life that racism essentially denies — on both sides.  But it’s characteristic of this production and this entire period of opera-to-musical-to-popular music cross-mixing that the song “Trouble Man” in Lost in the Stars is actually a blues. Yet Kristen Smith, who sings it at Theatre 3, doesn’t really sing it like a blues, which I think is a mistake.

If anyone does take another crack at staging Lost in the Stars, I’d recommend — in addition to trimming it and reviving the dance numbers — I’d recommend trying the original ending. Theatre 3 uses the official Broadway version – which, because it was on Broadway, opted for a somewhat upbeat finish with a different song being reprised (“Thousands of Miles”). But Lost in the Stars once ended like this — with two heartbroken fathers in the darkness.

[music: the ending of “Lost in the Stars”]

It does feel like a musical tragedy, doesn’t it?

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  • CF&A

    Someone, the Goodman Theatre actually did try to rework Weil’s work for in 1993 for contemporary audiences but some resistance from Weill’s Foundation. I know the Foundation is interested in maintaining Weill’s work but personally, I feel by being so restrictive they’re actally dooming it fade away except for those occasional concert performances.