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The Carolina Theater was most accessible for the person who accompanied this reviewer to Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars on October 4, 2002, at 8:00 p.m. There is, for the record, handicap parking streetside, at the base of the gradually sloping walkway to the box office and entry. For others, there is covered, presumably monitored, parking just across the street. This note should encourage others who like us have never taken the plunge to attend an evening performance in downtown Durham!
Walking the stage in the footsteps of the great Todd Duncan (the first Rev. Stephen Kumalo), Leonard Rowe will not remain for long "lost among the stars" (sic) of New York City Opera and the nationwide regional operas that have brought him to this stage of his career. His role as the father figure, double entendre intended, in Lost In the Stars , was totally convincing. The voice projected effortlessly, with fullness and a cutting edge. Immaculate diction on Rowe's part kept the story line intact. Much of the libretto, including otherwise fine choral work, was lost even as it would have been in a foreign language, but deliciously so. The supporting voices, solo and chorus, were pleasant.
There were more spoken segments than allowed in grand opera, so this Weill opus may still ultimately be classified somewhere between opera and a Broadway musical. Comedy, it was not! The script was based on Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country . Its tragic yet redeeming nature is what distinguishes the work as opera, in my opinion, yet I agree with another critical assessment: that with Lost in the Stars , Weill's last work before his untimely death at age 50, the composer had brought the Broadway stage to the level of opera.
Impeccably costumed for period and place, the entire piece evoked South Africa under Apartheid. Spartan stage sets were enhanced by projections of strong simple themes on the backdrop. This contrasted with a smattering of electronically-projected stars to accompany the title song by Rowe, "Lost In the Stars," sung as his character completes a letter to his wife explaining the dilemma of their son Absolom's disappearance.
Trackside at the train to Johannesburg, Artistic Director Randolph Umberger - veteran of outdoor drama - supervised a team that brought the scene to life with extremely realistic choreography. (Chuck Davis and Normadien Woolbright are to be given specific credit for unique choreography of the entire piece.) As the train moved invisibly in and away, Maestro Benjamin Keaton and the able pit orchestra confirmed the scene audibly with Weill's representation of a steam engine and train. It was more convincing than Honegger's "Pacific 236."
Elegantly costumed, with African robe and headdress, the entrance of The Leader (William Trice) set the stage for the opera. His voice was fine but not memorable. His presence was nevertheless effective, as the citizens entered the stage from the two side aisles, in the style of the peasants in "Amahl and the Night Visitors." A dedicated crew of stagehands no doubt learned to move the sparse props before the lights caught them, blue jeans among their costumes, on succeeding nights.
Two other memorable performances were by Tequisha Y. Coley Rice, who sang the role of Irina, being great with Absolom's child. Her mezzo tones fulfilled the strength of her character. The other was the seductive table-top dancer, Rose the barmaid (Eugenia Jennings), in her song with body language, "Who'll Buy?" Her voice was a showstopper as in comic relief for the heavy fare. Quadrarius J. Steele, child actor, complemented Rowe's strong performance as the nephew Alex, who accompanied the Episcopal priest on his quest to locate Absolom.
The orchestra continued to set the tonal flavor of the evening with vintage Weill, reminiscent of Street Scene and "Mac, the Knife". There are indeed two opera companies remaining in the Triangle. Their personalities may not reflect the same circles, but the goals of each are equally worthy of audience support and patronage. This show has sown seeds of "universal brotherhood, mutual respect and racial harmony" that must continue to be nourished in Durham and universally. Thanks to North Carolina Central University, Triangle sponsors (including the Durham Arts Council), and the Kurt Weill Foundation, Long Leaf Opera has established a raison d'être .