The Collegiate Chorale has brought “Knickerbocker Holiday,” Kurt Weill’s 1938 musical about Peter Stuyvesant in olde Nieuw Amsterdam, back to new New York. It’s an event of prime importance to Weill fans, few of whom have had the opportunity to hear this most elusive of the master’s finished works (and his only major score that remains unrecorded). But the reasons “Knickerbocker” has remained on the shelf for 70-odd years are immediately apparent.
The book by Maxwell Anderson, at the time one of the leading playwrights, is a heavy-handed political attack on the New Deal, with a plot centering on Stuyvesant’s attempts to turn the democratic colony into a dictatorship. The corrupt, bumbling Town Council stands in for FDR’s Cabinet; there are speeches attacking the expansive government policies of the president; and to make matters clear, the bumblingest fool of the lawmakers is named Roosevelt.
Weill’s work is vibrantly refreshing, an intriguing mix of his familiar Berlin style with his first explorations of the American musical. Anderson, though, had no musical experience, and his lack of practical craft shows: More than a few of the 26 songs in “Knickerbocker” are repetitive or extraneous.
Victor Garber is the evening’s Stuyvesant, without the stage presence of leading men who have previously played the role (including Walter Huston and Burt Lancaster). Ben Davis and Bryce Pinkham offer sympathetic portrayals of the rebellious hero Brom and narrator-author Washington Irving, but only Kelli O’Hara (“South Pacific”) — as the underwritten heroine — displays the musical comedy knowhow to rise above the material.
The stage is overrun by seven character comedians, all of them offering canny sketches, led by David Garrison. Christopher Fitzgerald is also on hand, in an ill-fitting role that seems to have been expanded for the occasion.
The Collegiate Chorale has given “Knickerbocker” a fine mounting, musically; James Bagwell takes his 27 piece orchestra through Weill’s original orchestrations, supplemented by a huge chorus of 68. (Weill had 13 singers.) The book has been whittled down, and happily so, but we still get all those repetitive songs.
But whatever the weaknesses might be, it’s still a worthwhile pleasure to hear the score in all its musical splendor.