February 8th, 2011

La Loge

Lost In The Stars

I've written about Encores! before--those semi-staged, 4 day mountings of old Broadway musicals too dated, too long, too strange, too commerically iffy in one way or another for a producer to consider raising the big bucks necessary for a full  production. 

Based on Alan Paton's novel of life in pre-apartheid South Africa, Maxwell Anderson's book is a very nearly classical tragedy, and Kurt Weill's music sounds more like a modern opera than a musical, full of dissonances and fuges and wonderfully strange rhythm changes.  It sounds very modern, reminding me more of, say, The Scottsboro Boys than Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or South Pacific, which both opened, like Lost in the Stars, in 1949.

The cast was wonderful.  Both Jeremy Gumbs and Sharon Washington had been in The Scottsboro Boys (Washington as the silent presence of Rosa Parks, Gumbs as the youngest Boy), and acquitted themselves splendidly--especially Gumbs, who has a remarkable set of pipes and a presence that just lights up the stage.  Chuck Cooper as the black Anglican pastor Stephen Kumalo, whose journey into spiritual despair the musical traces, was a bit of a disappointment to me.  His voice isn't strong, his acting not entirely convincing.  There should be a lot going on in that character, pain and faith and fury and hope.  Which he gave us all right, but sequentially, so the character seemed more of a whirligig of attitudes than a complex human being.  Could have been the script, I suppose, but his extremely awkward handling of one particularly difficult scene inclines me to think he didn't quite get Stephen.  Ted Sutherland as the Horrible White Bigot, however, did a remarkable job with a basically thankless part, until the surprise switcheroo at the end, which even he couldn't rescue from unconvincing sentimentality.

The play itself was a more than usually mixed bag for me:  some things worked for me; some things, I really disliked.  I'll put the negatives first so I can end on a positive note: 

Things I had trouble with: 

The character of Irina, Absolom's lover and the mother of his unborn child, who has not one, but two "he's a troubled, troubled soul and he makes me cry a lot, but I love him anyway and will be faithful to him until the day I die" songs.  Anderson should just have renamed her "Griselda" and have done with it.

The fact that when the horrid old bigot James Jarvis has his personality transplant comes to be with Stephen at the moment of Absolom's execution for the murder of Jarvis's son, his gesture of reconciliation is  all about him:  his pain, his need to find a reason to live, his hunger for friendship with someone who knows what it is to lose a beloved but poorly understood son.  It works as a metaphor--Jarvis and Stephen Kumalo are brothers in suffering, and have, in some sense, inflicted that suffering on each other--but I found the staged moment artificial.  I don't know whether it was the writing or the acting (or possibly both), but I wasn't convinced that those men, as I'd come to know them over the last 1 1/2 hours, would have behaved as they did at that moment.

The women:  Madonna, Magdalene, or whore.


Things I liked a lot:

The music.  Oh, the music.  I liked the choruses better than the individual character songs--although some of those were just dandy--especially "Who'll Buy?" a song of sultry double-entendres sung by a random floozy in Johannesburg's shantytown, and "Big Mole", sung by Stephen's young nephew Alex (played by Jeremy Gumbs).  And "Thousands of Miles," a song about the impossibility of knowing another human being and the necessity of loving them anyway, made me cry.

The staging:  Mounting a semi-concert production of a musical, where everybody's carrying scripts, the orchestra is on-stage, and there's little to no scenery, is challenging--especially when there are 27 characters with speaking parts (10 of whom play no other roles), a chorus of 19, and 2 dancers.  The costuming was simple (everyone in white and tan, with touches of red, pink, coral for the main characters.  Except for Stephen Kumali, who was all in clerical black with a white dogcollar, and (for some reason I cannot fathom) Irina in satiny yellow with a most unconvincing padded Baby Bump sewn into the front.

The (mostly) unsentimental and unflinching eye two white men (three, counting Alan Paton) brought to their examination of South African racial politics.  There are no apologies here, no appeals to manifest destiny or real-politik or religion or expediency.  Just a quietly damning demonstration of how the white men gutted the indigenous culture of the Zulus, leaving them with few choices and fewer opportunities.  It made me want to read the book, which I somehow missed when I was in school, even though many of my friends read it. 

There have been musicals picked up from Encores! and given the full Broadway treatment:  Gypsy a few years back, and 2009's  Finnian's Rainbow come to mind.  If Lost In the Stars  joins them, I wouldn't be at all surprised.