Lost in the Stars

Encores! at City Center, NYC - February 2011

Reviewed by John Kenrick

If music be the food of love, then the audience was treated to a feast at the Encores! presentation of Lost in the Stars -- though like some feasts, this one packed more calories than real flavor.

The last musical to boast a score by Kurt Weill bounces daringly between oratorio, grand opera and rare moments of something lighter.  The libretto and lyrics by playwright Maxwell Anderson seem more inclined to teach or preach than to entertain, which makes the proceedings a bit heavy-handed at times -- in fact, a few times too often. In telling the story of a black South African preacher whose faith is challenged when his son commits murder and faces merciless justice in the age of apartheid, Weill and Anderson too often let the message take precedence over the dramatic action. This explains why this show has been rarely seen since its respectable Broadway run in 1949.  But Weill's music, sometimes dissonant, sometimes ravishing in its beauty, has kept aficionados talking about this flawed gem.

On the down side, director Gary Griffen seems to have urged his cast to downplay their emotions. Although Broadway veteran Chuck Cooper brings all the vocal luster one could ask for to the role of the minister, he responds to news of his son's criminal behavior much the same way as he does to his wife suggesting he take a bus trip -- and while such underplaying might be in style today, it leaves this particular material lying half-dead in the spotlight. This stands in contrast to what happens when Cooper and an exquisite choral ensemble launch into the lyrical title song, one of Weill's most irresistible melodies -- out of nowhere, passion floods the theatre. Even a concert staging has to reconcile the book scenes with the music, and that did not seem to happen here. Most of the cast downplayed their scenes, and as a consequence it was impossible for this production to build a much needed sense of dramatic momentum.

Three performers in this cast managed to set off sparks of real fire. Quentin Earl Darrington, who was so impressive in the recent revival of Ragtime, offered great energy and authority as the Leader. of the chorus. As the minister's young and idealistic nephew, Jeremy Crumbs won cheers with the relatively minor number "Big Mole." And best of all, Sherry Boone electrified the audience with her searing performance as the murderer's pregnant lover. Oh, if only some of her energy could have been channeled to those around her!

John Lee Beatty's corrugated gold flats were amazingly effective at conveying a concert-worthy taste of exotic atmosphere. Musical director Rob Berman wisely chose to use Weill's original orchestration, which specified a mere dozen musicians. Although far smaller than the usual Encores orchestra, they played with astounding precision and enough heart to fill the massive City Center as well as three times their number would normally hope to. And rarely has any production boasted a chorus of such exceptional singers.

While less than satisfying dramatically, this Lost in the Stars offered musical riches galore. At a time when good music is getting so hard to find on Broadway, it is reassuring to hear so much wonderful sound packed into one presentation.

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