In its continuing 40th anniversary celebrations, the Young Vic follows its revival of The Beauty Queen of Leenane with the return of Opera Company’s community production of Street Scene by Kurt Weill (music), Elmer Rice (book) and Langston Hughes (lyrics). First seen a couple of years ago, also at original co-producers, the Palace Theatre Watford, this production transports you from The Cut to a steamy June night on the sidewalk in front a pre-War New York tenement block.
Just like the soap operas on television now, we follow the interconnecting lives of various immigrant families – from Scandinavia, Italy, German, Poland and Africa (the production replaces Rice’s original Caucasian janitor from his 1920 play with an African-American one) – and from one, long sultry evening to the following morning, we see the tragic consequences of affairs of the heart, in amidst the gossip, the kids playing, the petty arguments and the birth of a child.
If it hadn’t been written for Broadway it would have been a shining example of American verismo; and that’s perhaps why it has retained its occasional foothold in the repertoire because of opera companies.
In the small confines of the Young Vic (a complete contrast to the expanse of the London Coliseum, where the English National Opera produced the work back in 1989), the orchestra are on two levels of the tenement block: strings and percussion on the ground floor, the wind and brass in one line on the first floor. Two sets of stairs lead down onto an apron stage, with a second floor above the wind and brass. Washing, hung out to dry drape the sides of the stage and chalked graffiti (‘a trew story’) decorates every available surface, as well as the names of the families who live in tenement block 346 – the Maurants, Olsens, Hildebrands, Jonses, Fiorentinos and Kaplans.
The Maurants are the lynchpins to the story – prone-to-violence husband Frank (Geoffrey Dolton), adulterous wife Anna (Elena Ferrari), pretty daughter Anna (Susanna Hurrell) pursued at work by her boss and loved by shy trainee-lawyer Sam Kaplan (bespectacled and plausibly awkward Paul CurIevici) and young bully son Willie (Oscar O’Rahilly). The gossips are out about Anna’s liking for the milkman, but the tragic denouement and heartbreaking coda is superbly managed not only in Kurt Weill’s score but also John Fulljames vibrant production. You feel for these people, none are just black and white, they are fully rounded and believable and the audience’s engagement, as in all good tragedy, is seeing what will probably happen, but hoping fervently that it will not.
Street Scene can hold its head up high in the operatic canon, and certainly heralded the other scenes from the streets from shortly after, Bernstein’s West Side Story. There’s even some superb dancing, fulfilling a Broadway necessity (just like the Paris opera!), and a surfeit of catchy and memorable melodies.
When the community choir, inhabiting the level above the audience add their voice to the tragedy there is a sense of total involvement, being completely wrapped up in the drama. In short, this is a tremendous production of a great show. Don’t miss it – it’s running at the Young Vic (with the Southbank Sinfonia and conductor Tim Murray taking over the musical honours from the BBC Concert Orchestra and Keith Lockhart) to 1 October and then touring to Basingstoke, Edinburgh, Newport and Hull over the following fortnight.
If you can’t make any of those, don’t despair: BBC Radio 3 was on hand last night to record it for future radio broadcast.