Sometimes elegance, stylishness and sophistication come wearing immigrant’s clothes. In the imaginatively produced and gloriously performed song cycle “Jam & Spice: The Music of Kurt Weill,” world-premiering at Westport Country Playhouse, the company of six performers and three musicians arrive dressed in 1930s garb on a cold day and a bare stage seemingly to rehearse, improvise and perform — but perhaps they’re there just for themselves. It’s the Depression, and the music fills their deep need and desire to connect.
The focus of the cast’s attention is another transplanted soul whose wide-ranging compositions are filled with life, sadness, anger, urgency and hope. The German-born Weill was inspired and transformed by his adopted country and created in the ’30s and ’40s some of the most intelligent, emotional and lilting music the Broadway stage has ever presented.
When early on in the show the performers collectively sing “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” it becomes much more than a lovely tune sung by a lost love goddess from “One Touch of Venus.” Rather, it’s a sly, smart, seductive anthem for those who adapted from the old world to the new with grace and resilience.
As staged with elan and energy by Tazewell Thompson, it’s a number that establishes early on that the evening’s presentation is not only about honoring the talents of one of Broadway’s best — and relatively underappreciated — composers, but also celebrating the vitality and versatility of the songs.
Thompson avoids the biographical approach (“and then he wrote …”) for a more organic, theatrical and thematic show that pays tribute to — as well as reflecting upon — his subject and his times, and perhaps ours as well.
Anchoring the sound and making the songs feel all of a greater piece are the sophisticated, engaging arrangements by Dianne Adams McDowell, performed by the sharp trio of Mark Berman, John Loehrke and Jeff Potter.
The ensemble of six legit and opera performers naturally and seamlessly glides from one song to the next, just as Weill segued from one new collaborator to another, including those represented here: Ira Gershwin, Maxwell Anderson, Langston Hughes, Ogden Nash, Paul Green, Ann Ronell, Alan J. Lerner and, of course, Bertolt Brecht, with whom he began his theater career in his native Germany.
Mary Testa is the show’s musical, emotional and dramatic center, without upsetting the ensemble’s balance. With Testa, “Susan’s Dream” from “Love Life” is a study in simplicity and wonder, and her “Surabaya Johnny” (from “Happy End”) has all the fierce intensity without the histrionics. “Very, Very, Very” from “One Touch of Venus,” performed with Kurt Zischke, plays to Testa’s comic strengths. (The two also do a haunting “It Never Was You.”)
Other numbers also are reimagined, mainly to great effect: “The Saga of Jenny” (from “Lady in the Dark”) has the ensemble singing the narrative lyrics as Christianne Tisdale acts out the cautionary tale with humor, pizzazz and poignancy. “That’s Him” (from “One Touch of Venus”), originally presented as a solo, here becomes a delicious trio with three women talking about their men, a kind of musical “Sex and the City” number.
Thompson knows how to compose an artful stage picture, but he also understands the dramatic tension of a tune and what that requires. He begins the second act with his cast seated around a small table where the ensemble sings together (“Alabama Song,” which beautifully pivots from raw to dreamy) and separately (J.D. Webster’s jazz-infused “Speak Low,” Carey Brown’s exquisite “My Ship,” the lyrics of which contain the show’s title, referring to the tasty cargo onboard).
Other highlights include Jason Ma’s breezy “My Foolish Heart,” with Anthony Salatino’s fresh choreography finding just the right moment in a song to break free, a sensibility he demonstrates throughout the evening.
Arnulfo Maldonado artfully creates a bare stage/backstage environment (as well as a beautifully detailed period proscenium). His costumes evoke a time and mood, but they don’t limit actors as they go from song to song and character to character. The seemingly stark stage and presentational format allows Robert Wierzel to create some dramatic lighting moments.