Street Scene – American Opera in Two Acts to lyrics by Langston Hughes; book by Elmer Rice
Frank Maurrant – Geof Dolton
Anna Maurrant – Elena Ferrari
Rose Maurrant – Susanna Hurrell
Willie Maurrant – Tyler Fagan
Abraham Kaplan / Steve Sankey – Paul Featherstone
Shirley Kaplan / Mae Jones – Kate Nelson
Sam Kaplan – Paul Curievici
Lippo Fiorentino / Dr Wilson – Joseph Shovelton
Greta Fiorentino – Simone Sauphanor
George Jones / Vincent Jones / Harry Easter – James McOran-Campbell
Emma Jones / Nursemaid – Charlotte Page
Carl Olsen – Paul Reeves
Olga Olsen / Nursemaid – Harriet Williams
Mrs Hildebrand – Joanna Foote
Jennie Hildebrand – Eboni Dixon
Charlie Hildebrand – Saul Friend
Henry Davis / Dick McGann – Joseph Moabi
Daniel Buchanan – Nathan Vale
Members of Lewisham Choral Society; Children from Vauxhall and Reay Primary Schools; Youth Ensemble from neighbouring boroughs
Southbank Sinfonia Touring
John Fulljames – Director
Dick Bird – Designer
Jon Clark – Lighting design
Arthur Pita – Choreography [revived by Yann Seabra]
Reviewed by: Mark Valencia
Reviewed: 22 September, 2011
Venue: The Young Vic, London
Originally staged in partnership with Watford Palace Theatre in 2008, there’s no chic sheen to the Young Vic’s Street Scene. This revival of its co-production with The Opera Group is rough round all its theatrical edges. The singers are prone to being drowned out by the orchestra, some of the role-doubling is obtrusive, the sound-effects are weedy and Dick Bird’s set does little more than frame the action. Yet it’s the very rawness of John Fulljames’s staging that brings it to life and underlines its kinship with the best of gritty modern theatre (Jim Cartwright’s urban-drama Road is a direct descendent). For a play originally written – by Elmer Rice – in 1929 and brought to musical life in 1947, Street Scene has dated relatively little and only betrays its age in the hectoring delivery of its anti-tribalist, live-and-let-live political tenet.
Musical or opera? The label is probably unimportant except it reflects the tone of the piece. It’s the former, say the authors; yet the immigrant Kurt Weill did little more than dabble in the language of Broadway. He approached the project as he would a regular composer-led opera, which is why the score’s textures are so much more successful in creating mood than its melodies. The classic Broadway musical tended to be a collaboration of equals – composer, lyricist, book writer, producer and director – and between them they would ruthlessly jettison songs by the sackful during try-outs until only the most whistle-friendly gems remained. In Street Scene just one number is guaranteed to get ’em humming: the catchy, ragtime-influenced ‘Wrapped in a Ribbon and Tied in a Bow’. As for the rest of the score, it’s even more operatic than Porgy and Bess.
Among the culturally diverse families who inhabit the play’s New York tenement block, none is more ill-starred than the Maurrant family. Anna (Elena Ferrari in a powerful vocal performance) is locked in a loveless marriage to Frank (Geof Dolton, unhinged and dangerous). The burgeoning relationship between their daughter Rose and Jewish neighbour Sam gives rise to a certain amount of family tension, although that is as nothing compared to Anna’s dangerous infatuation with the milkman… The Young Vic cast is strong throughout and everyone, from the principals to the superbly disciplined ensemble of local schoolchildren, makes a valuable contribution to the period atmosphere. Amid the excellence an unnervingly accomplished triple-threat performance by 12-year-old Tyler Fagan stands out, as do the dynamic dance pairing of John Moabi and Kate Nelson and the touching duo of young lovers, Paul Curievici and Susanna Hurrell. All the company’s operatic singers place the vocal needs of character ahead of technical rectitude and every one of them is ready to dip into a musical theatre style when it serves the action.
The decision not to amplify the voices should present no problem for these trained singers, but their sharing the stage with the excellent if clumsily named Southbank Sinfonia Touring makes it one. Weill would have expected his players to be concealed in an orchestra pit, yet at the Young Vic the wind and brass are paraded for all to see – and to hear with absolute clarity. Tim Murray tames the band wherever possible, although in raucous ensembles such as the opening number, ‘Ain’t It Awful, the Heat’, there is only so much he can do, for the alumni from the 2010 Southbank Sinfonia throw themselves into Weill’s world with stylish panache.
Weill, Rice and the librettist Langston Hughes wrote their opera-musical just as the carousel of change was cranking up in post-war America. Although references to “free love, divorce and birth control” may have scandalised contemporary ears, within ten years another slow-burning tenement tale would roam the same New York sidewalks and explode even more unforgettably. Yet for all that West Side Story is a great work, it cannot match the heart and compassion of Street Scene nor hold a candle to its truthfulness.