One currently fashionable way to rescue memorable songs from mediocre or forgotten shows is to write a new narrative around the old but compelling tunes. With the blessing of the Kurt Weill estate, writer-adapter Jonathan Eaton has forged what is almost a new book musical out of some 35 Weill tunes taken from 16 different musicals, plays and operas. It’s a masterful piece of theatrical craft from a Weill expert, but one cannot help thinking that this composer’s distinguished oeuvre works just as well when performed in the more traditional revue format of “From Berlin to Broadway.”
Eaton sets his new show immediately after World War II, his dramatic device putting six characters from different places in a dockside bar. Thus a hard-bitten German couple, a vulnerable French refugee, a cheerful American, a rather serious Jew and a quiet African-American all hang out, warbling while awaiting their boat to Youkali (which just happens to be the title of a Weill tune from “Marie Galante”). The island destination, of course, is also a metaphor for escape, and by the end of the show each character has decided it’s better to face reality. “Here I’ll Stay” (a Weill/Alan Jay Lerner song from “Love Life”), they finally sing together.
While the show is basically a collection of musical numbers, Eaton has written brief snatches of connecting dialogue. This allows him to make some unusual and illuminating connections between very different songs. Weill’s treatment of the Hebrew folk song “Hav l’venim,” for example, is particularly poignant when sung immediately after “Song of the Rhineland.” The device gives the show some shape and provides a workable ethnic context for unusual songs like “How Can You Tell an American” and “J’attends Un Navire.”
The downside is that once an audience is thrown these narrative elements, the show can no longer take advantage of the kind of suspension of disbelief typically afforded a revue. But whatever its conceptual problems, “Songplay” remains a treat for Weill fans. The Cincinnati ensemble is composed of excellent singers who have no problems with Weill’s trademark dissonance or musical complexity (one overly operatic actor, Craig Priebe, needs to tone down his dramatically overblown performance; otherwise, the actor-singers are all of the highest caliber). Paul Shorrt’s faded deco setting is an exceptionally attractive use of the tiny Shelterhouse space.
Most of the songs in “Songplay” are unfamiliar to the casual theatergoer, and this revue goes deeper into Weill’s canon than the previous “From Berlin to Broadway.” Even though commercial appeal thus seems limited, this often neglected composer remains a genuine (and surprisingly pliable) treasure.