The score for Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin’s “The Firebrand of Florence” made a triumphant return to Manhattan Thursday night after an ignominiously hasty retreat 64 years ago. It’s safe to say this failed 1945 operetta never sounded so good; nor is it ever likely to again unless the Collegiate Chorale can reassemble the cast and musicians for this one-night event.
This attempt at satirical comic operetta — from a songwriting team who had scored four years earlier with the smash “Lady in the Dark” — was numbingly overproduced and fatally undercast in its original production. A C-level leading man was cast as the romantic lead and the composer’s wife, Lotte Lenya, gave a baffling performance and a thick Germanic overlay to the role of the Florentine duchess, getting critically lambasted in the process.
Put the estimable Nathan Gunn in the role of dashing Benvenuto Cellini and counter him with Broadway vets Victoria Clark (“The Light in the Piazza”) and Terrence Mann (“Les Miserables”) as the comedic ruling Medicis and you have the best of all possible presentations.
Plot, such as it is, tells of the trials — literally so — of the celebrated Cellini. Sentenced in 1535 to hang for assault, he evades punishment by playing on the weaknesses of Alessandro the Wise (Mann), while Missus Alessandro (Clark) makes a play for Benvenuto. The rectangle’s fourth point is the model Angela (Anna Christy), who sings the love songs with Ben while being chased by the ineffectual Duke.
The whole shebang is merely a device upon which the authors hoped to hang a Broadway equivalent to Gilbert & Sullivan. But in this they failed; the Collegiate’s sterling concert presentation confirmed this was an off-day for Weill and Gershwin, which hastened the latter’s permanent retirement. Even the show’s big ballad, “There’ll Be Life, Love and Laughter,” failed to have much of an impact.
For fans of either or both authors, though, the evening was a resounding success. The score was sung far better than it apparently was in 1945; Gershwin’s masterfully playful lyrics brim over with deft wordplay; and the evening provided a rare chance to hear a full-scale Weill orchestration (scored in collaboration with Ted Royal), played by the New York City Opera Orchestra under Ted Sperling’s direction.
Having recently demonstrated how to get full value from a 1940s orchestration across Lincoln Center Plaza in “South Pacific,” Sperling does an equally excellent job with the lesser score for “Firebrand.” The stageful of singers necessitated placing the orchestra on the auditorium floor, losing the first four rows of seats but allowing the audience to hear the music in all its glory.
Opera baritone Gunn visited the Broadway repertoire last season in concert versions of “Camelot” and “Show Boat.” It’s safe to say this is the sort of actor and voice Weill and Gershwin were hoping for when they wrote “Firebrand” back during WWII.
Soprano Christy, an occasional Cunegonde in opera-house productions of “Candide,” does well enough despite the authors’ failings on Angela’s behalf. Clark, an exceptional singer and comedic talent, fully commandeered her portion of the proceedings. And Mann surprised in a new guise as bumbling character comedian. His voice was noticeably small on a stage populated by full-throated singing men, but the omnipresent amplification took care of that.
Chameleon-like comic actor David Pittu brightened the show by donning several hats. Also standing out was mezzo-soprano Krysty Swann as Cellini’s servant Emilia, shining in her rendition of “The Little Naked Boy.” Roger Rees, who ably directed the concert, made a supportive and amusing narrator.
Lavishly restored, comfortably appointed and handsomely paneled in wood, the auditorium added to the festive occasion of the first traditional Broadway score heard at the newly rejuvenated Alice Tully Hall. This rare showing of “The Firebrand of Florence” was a triumph for the Collegiate Chorale and a testament to late music director Robert Bass, who died of a rare heart disease in August at age 55.