Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Street Scene

Music by Kurt Weill, book by Elmer Rice, lyrics by Langston Hughes
Young Vic
(2008)

Publicity image

Street Scene celebrates the unlikely collaboration of three major artistic figures from the middle of the 20th Century, composer Kurt Weill, playwright Elmer Rice and African-American poet, Langston Hughes. For this reason and others it feels very much like a heady fusion of different influences.

Strangely, in terms of structure and plot, it has a great deal in common with Ché Walker's The Frontline, currently playing just up the road at Shakespeare's Globe.

Where the modern play shines a spotlight on London's multicultural underclass today, Street Scenes does the same for the New York Lower East Side melting pot just after the War.

Much of the first half of this opera/musical/play features vignettes of immigrant life amongst the crowded brownstone tenements where everyone strives for escape to a better life.

Songs in different genres are delivered well by a large ensemble plus choirs, splendidly supported by an orchestra seated on stage, wind perched a storey above strings and percussion, all under the control of Patrick Bailey, music director of The Opera Group.

Eventually, the multiple plotlines clarify and concentrate on the Maurant family, who have enough problems for a mid-evening soap. The good news is that all four of them can not only act but sing splendidly.

Mother (Elena Ferrari) feels unloved by Father (Andrew Slater) so carries on a far-too-public affair with a salesman. Father turns to the bottle and this big, impotent man with a deep bass voice seems constantly on the edge of violence.

Gorgeous Rose, their daughter (Ruby Hughes), turns every man's head and each suitor seems less suitable than the last. Her soul mate is Jewish Sam (Adrian Dwyer) whose only problem is a religion that wants no talk of mixed marriages.

In passing, Sam's bushy-bearded father (Paul Featherstone) provides a lovely cameo of the old communist who still believes in the creed despite having had to escape from Russia.

Even young Willie Maurant, played maturely by George Longworth, has a constant struggle, primarily to fight everyone who besmirches his mother's not very good name and everyone does.

This must all end in tears and after 2¾ hours duly does so in bittersweet fashion as a birth and a death arrive on the same night.

Beyond the Maurant family members, the best singing comes from the golden-voiced John Moabi in two different roles and styles, ensuring that the steamy Moon-Faced, Starry Eyed is as hot as the baking New York streets where the stories are played out.

There is perhaps too much experimentation and a larger number of characters than is strictly necessary but as a theatre/opera piece that involves its community, Street Scene has numerous memorable moments and with a performing team exceeding 100 fits the bill.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher