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SEEN AND HEARD  MUSIC THEATRE  REVIEW
 

Weill, Street Scene:  Dir. John Fulljames, Musical Director Patrick Bailey. Young Vic Theatre, London, 17. 7.2008 (ME)



Elena Ferrari as Mrs Maurrant, Andrew Slater as Frank Maurrant

 

The Young Vic makes it a priority to find and create new audiences – 10% of tickets are given away every year, whatever the pressure on the box office – “we believe a theatre should be a place of energy, intelligence and pleasure,” and this production is the perfect vehicle to achieve this. Most S&H readers, I suspect, will spend most of their evenings out at musical events rather than purely theatrical ones, and I must confess that I rarely visit the National Theatre or the RSC, mainly because I have so often been disappointed there. The Young Vic however has never disappointed me, and this production of “Street Scene” was at least as satisfying and illuminating as their wonderful “Skellig” and African “Magic Flute”.

Weill said of Elmer Rice’s play that it was “It was a simple story of everyday life in a big city, a story of love and passion and greed and death. I saw great musical possibilities in its theatrical device – life in a tenement house between one evening and the next afternoon. And it seemed like a great challenge to me to find the inherent poetry in these people and to blend my music with the stark realism of the play.” Langston Hughes was chosen to “lift the everyday language of the people into a simple, unsophisticated poetry” and the story of life at No.346, a typical brownstone tenement on the Upper East Side blends operatic drama with realistic interaction.



Ruby Hughes as Rose Maurrant, Adrian Dwyer as Sam Kaplan

The Maurrants and the Kaplans form the centre of this gossiping, struggling society, and the production characterises them all wonderfully – Paul Featherstone was a superbly kvetching Abraham, his tirades against “the scandals in the capitalist press”  in complete contrast to his rather louche Steve Sankey, and Andrew Slater, who describes himself as usually singing “small roles for big opera companies… and big roles for small opera companies” was a tower of strength both vocally and dramatically as the tyrannical paterfamilias, Frank. His wife and daughter were played by the touchingly sympathetic Elena Ferrari, who infused her arias with real longing, and the very promising Ruby Hughes, an RCM student from whom we’ll certainly be hearing more. Sam Kaplan was sung by Adrian Dwyer, who already has a considerable repertoire – this was an outstanding performance in a difficult role, his duet with Ruby “Remember that I care” managing to be moving yet avoid cloying sentimentality, a big challenge in my view with anything involving Walt Whitman.

The fragile balance between joy and sadness was finely shown in the Hildebrands, Jennie’s singing of “Wrapped in a ribbon and tied in a bow” made desperately poignant by the fact that the family is about to be evicted. Kate Nelson pulled off a remarkable hat trick as Jennie, Shirley Kaplan and Mae Jones, each one deftly characterized and confidently sung – so much so that a friend who had not seen the work before, took some convincing that this was one person. Those who saw the recent ENO Turn of the Screw will recall the remarkable performance of George Longworth as Miles, and in this production he gives an equally individual portrayal of Willie Maurrant. Even Bailey the Dog, as Queenie, does not disappoint.

The Orchestra, tightly controlled by Patrick Bailey never threatened to drown the singers despite the strong presence of brass instruments, and both choreography (Arthur Pita) and lighting (Jon Clark) were striking. For those who have not experienced this kind of work before, I would characterize it as a sort of mixture of Arthur Miller and Benjamin Britten – think A View from the Bridge crossed with The Turn of the Screw, and even if you don’t normally think of yourself as liking musicals, you should try this one. From the intimate duets to the big show stopping numbers, all played out against a background which really gives you the true feel and sense of the Upper East Side, you’ll be drawn into every scene. Even the programme, done as a newspaper of the period – ‘New York in record Heat Wave – Top temperature of 97 recorded’ (thank heavens those were pre- global warming as well as pre- universal AC times) is inventive and memorable. Go –  further performances on the 18th, 19th, 21st and 22nd at the Young Vic, and the 24th at the Buxton Festival, all sold out but it’s always worth trying for returns.

Melanie Eskenazi


Pictures ©
Alastair Muir

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