New Yorkers starved for musical theater have in the past 10 days been serenaded with not one but two vibrant and compelling scores by Kurt Weill. This turns out to be a cause for mixed celebration, as the music will leave fans of the German-American master thrilled even as they’re scratching their heads over Maxwell Anderson’s awkward, not-so-vibrant book and lyrics. The duo’s late “Lost in the Stars,” based on “Cry, the Beloved Country,” is more effective than their early “Knickerbocker Holiday,” if also significantly stodgier. Even so, these weeks of ice and snow have been a real bounty for Weill partisans.
South African novelist Alan Paton wrote “Cry, the Beloved Country” just prior to the institution of apartheid laws. Weill and Anderson optioned the novel before its publication in September 1948 and opened “Lost in the Stars” on Broadway just a year later in October 1949. The politically provocative tuner drew praise for its social awareness and music, but also criticism of its sketchy storytelling. Show had a disappointing eight-month run, during which the 50-year-old Weill suffered a fatal heart attack.
The mixed results are borne out by the artful but slow-moving production mounted by NY City Center Encores! The score — half of which is sung by the characters, the rest consisting of numbers by the Greek chorus-like ensemble — sounds wonderful as performed by Rob Berman’s 12-piece orchestra. But the first act, which follows a country preacher’s journey to Johannesburg to find his errant son, meanders as he wanders through Shantytown. (During intermission, more than a few theatergoers wandered right out onto 55th Street.)
The final 30 minutes reverse course, with three compelling scenes almost back-to-back — scenes written as straight dialogue, without song. Despite mostly fine music, “Lost in the Stars” is awkwardly musicalized, resulting in a generally dissatisfying evening. Director Gary Griffin’s staging is fluid, with especially effective use of the chorus, but there’s only so much you can do with a musical in which only three of the speaking characters are given songs to sing.
Chuck Cooper gives a moderately effective performance as the preacher; while he is an accomplished singer, his two major soliloquies don’t soar as they should. In the non-singing role of a white landowner whose son is murdered by the preacher’s boy, Daniel Gerroll is impeccable (although it’s never clear why he sports the only South African accent among the cast of 30). Also songless is Daniel Breaker (“Passing Strange,” “Shrek”), giving yet another strong performance as the preacher’s son Absalom.
Jeremy Gumbs, most recently the youngest of the Broadway “Scottsboro Boys,” all but stops the show with his one extraneous but crowdpleasing solo, “Big Mole.” Quentin Earl Darrington (“Ragtime”) does well as the choral leader, looking on the action throughout and soloing on about half the songs.
Despite its assets, “Lost in the Stars” has the patina of idealistic theater that’s good for you, which may explain the failure of its original runs and its revival at the Imperial in 1972 (starring Brock Peters). This five-perf City Center stint is most welcome for Weill fans, but likely to be one of the less popular Encores! outings.