Kurt Weill’s Street Scene is an amalgam of so many styles; it’s hard to know where to begin to describe this portrayal of a slice of 1940s American city life. The blend makes each individual number extremely attractive, but the mishmash also creates problems of cohesion.
Premiered in 1947, it won the first Tony Award for Best Original Score, beating out both Finian’s Rainbow and Brigadoon. The “American opera” or “Broadway opera” (Weill called it both) was probably most influenced by Gershwin’s 1935 Porgy and Bess, which also takes place in a lower-class neighborhood, although Weill’s is set in New York whereas the former was Catfish Row in Charleston.
And while Gershwin’s story was certainly seedy, Weill’s is overtly political, taking on capitalism, immigration, racism, love, infidelity and jealous murder. This production, given in the nice-sized Agnes de Mille Theatre on the North Carolina School of the Arts campus by NCSA students, featured an imposing tenement set (designed by Tzuen Yap) with stairs to the street and windows to four apartments, allowing for ample opportunity to peek into the lives of several families and their interaction with each other.
Weill’s score sets the libretto by Langston Hughes from a Pulitzer Prize winning play (1929) by Elmer Rice. The music reflects the ethnic melting pot represented by the people who live in the building — from straight Broadway song, to jazz, to Puccini-like arias and ensembles.
The cast is huge, with more than 50 named characters who appear onstage at one time or another, but the main action revolves around the members of five families who share the building. Various members of these families like to gossip about the goings-on in the building, especially the affair between Mrs. Maurrant (sung by Nicole Annis, a very large voice) and Steve Sankey (John Mark Swink).
The young Sam Kaplan (often beautifully but inconsistently sung by Adam Ulrich) tells the women that they should mind their own business, but that doesn’t faze the ladies. Sam is interested in the affections of Rose Maurrant, (magnificently sung with passion and beauty by Jodi Burns), but she likes Sam only as a friend. Toss in Frank Maurrant (harshly sung by Chris Ervin) an overbearing, insensitive, and jealous husband, and the melting pot becomes a simmering cauldron that eventually boils over when an enraged Frank shoots both his wife and her lover.
This ethnic melting pot includes Greta Fiorentino, the German wife (a coloratura role cleanly sung by Allison Chickering) married to her Italian Lippo (convincingly sung by René Barbera). The Swedes were Olga (Rachel Dawson) and Carl Olsen (Kevin Warner). Typical Americans, the Jones, consisted of the gossipy Emma (strongly sung by Amy Hartsough), her drunken husband (Brandon Whitesell), their brutish son (Steve Hall), and their promiscuous daughter, Mae (Alona Metcalf). Her dancing with Dick McGann (Paul Baswell) was magnificent and brought the house down in “Moon Faced, Starry Eyed.”
A chorus of school children/street urchins adds to the general hubbub as do several ancillary plot lines. All of this action was tastefully directed by Michael Shell. Music Director James Allbritten masterfully led the orchestra in the pit as well as helping the singers on the stage every step of the way.