Fans of the great German-born theater composer Kurt Weill (“The Threepenny Opera”) will undoubtedly kvell (shiver with delight) at the very notion of 27 of his famous and not-so-famous songs (as written with various lyricists) now being used as the underpinning of “LoveMusik,” a musical about his romance and marriage to Lotte Lenya. Expectations are rewarded in this imaginative production presented by the Manhattan Theater Club and directed with panache by the legendary Harold Prince. It is not surprising that Prince would be intrigued by this challenging project with a book by Alfred Uhry suggested by the letters between Weill and Lenya.
Prince has applied a suitably Brechtian layer to “LoveMusik” to not only commemorate Brecht’s significant presence as a character but also to emphasize the strong esthetic influence on Weill that he was. More expressionistically than realistically conceived, the relationship between Weill and Lenya, with Brecht and a few others thrown in for good humor, is as broadly satirized as it is broodingly deglamorized. Having directed Lenya in “Cabaret,” Prince has been able to reflect on their stunning and very real collaboration. As central to this musical as are the terrific performances by Donna Murphy as Lenya, Michael Cerveris as Weill, and David Pittu as Brecht, it is also the design and flavor of the show that keeps the occasionally problematic text in tow.
Judith Dolan’s period costumes cover a quarter of a century and are often, especially for Lenya, breathtaking. Beowulf Boritt’s set designs are amusingly abstracted but rich in detail, and Patricia Birch’s musical staging is as visually arresting as Howard Binkley’s lighting. And then there is the 10-piece band that plays Jonathan Tunick’s masterfully understated arrangements.
Despite one’s inclination to dwell on Murphy’s embodiment of the coarse, earthy, and passionate Lenya, there may be a tendency to under appreciate the introverted finesse with which Cerveris defines the brilliant but unquestionably stiff and plain-looking Weill. A sequence of wittily engaging episodes propels them from courtship in pre-World War II Germany to great successes and failures in America, as such songs as “Speak Low,” “Alabama Song,” “Girl of the Moment,” “Surabaya Johnny,” and “September Song,” among the others, are often as not cleverly entwined to be as significantly character-defining as they are stand-alone performance songs. But, oh those songs and such an extraordinary show.
“LoveMusik,” through Sunday, June 24, Biltmore Theater, 236 W. 47th Street, $76.25 to $101.25. 212-239-6200.
110 in the Shade
‘110 in the Shade” is the bittersweet musical that brought the composing team of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt to Broadway in 1963. It followed the phenomenal success of “The Fantasticks,” their other more whimsically romantic delicacy that went on to become the longest running show in Off Broadway history (and is now back again). N. Richard Nash adapted the book for “110 in the Shade” from his 1954 play “The Rainmaker,” subsequently a film starring Katherine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster. The strength of this melodic and gentle musical is its heartfelt simplicity.
The show succeeds or fails on the strength and the brilliance of the actress who plays Lizzie, a plain-Jane spinster resigned to a life on the farm and taking care of her father and two brothers. The luminous and extraordinarily gifted Audra McDonald is Lizzie, and who could ask for more? The score may not aspire to greatness but you would never know it when McDonald sings “Love, Don’t Turn Away,” “Is It Really Me,” and “Simple Little Things.” As to the color-blind casting of McDonald, it is just as easy to cherish the thrill of McDonald’s shimmering voice and radiant performance as it is to relegate the musical’s time and setting, the Texas Panhandle during the Great Depression, to being immaterial.
The story of how Lizzie blossoms under the spell of a good-looking traveling con man who arrives promising to bring rain to the drought-plagued territory, is pure romantic drivel but very easy to embrace. Under Lonny Price’s direction, John Cullum scores reliably as Lizzie’s father, as do Chris Butler and Bobby Steggert as her devoted brothers. Steve Kazee is engaging as the con man Starbuck, as are members of the ensemble who aren’t as inclined to dancing as they are for milling about in designer Santo Loquasto’s western garb. A major eye-catcher in the modestly abstract setting (also by Loquasto) is a large round overhead circle. It is variously lighted with artistic integrity by Christopher Akerlind, alternately serving, as does McDonald, as the musical’s sun and its moon. HHH
“110 in the Shade,” through Sunday, July 29, Roundabout at Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, $32.25 to $111.25, 212-719-1300.
The opportunity to watch two luminaries of the theater, Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes, serve and volley words back and forth as long retired tennis champions is a treat. One wishes that the slight play that Terrence McNally has written for them might be more of one.
As former doubles partners now reunited at a US Open tournament at which they are the honored guests, Lansbury and Seldes do what real pros can with material that neither really suits them nor provides them with a plot worthy of their concerted effort. Lansbury and Seldes do score a few zingers as they prod each other with memories of their matches, marriages and misunderstandings even as they perpetuate a sense of rivalry and jealousy.
The play takes place in the stadium (handsomely evoked by designer Peter J. Davison) where Leona (Lansbury) and Midge (Seldes) sit for most of the play in their box seats, only occasionally rising for those moments when their memories take charge and time is suspended. Action is limited for the most part to the side to side motion of their heads as they comment knowingly on the performance of the young players below, as well as on the impact of celebrity and commercialism that has taken over the sport.
Interspersed between their sometimes baiting, sometimes affectionate, and too often benign repartee, including the name dropping of former tennis greats, is the back and forth announcing by the two stadium reporters, ex-athletes, perched above in their own box. Their slick and polished yet comical delivery, particularly with references to the immortal ladies sitting below them, has been assigned to the very amusing Brian Haley and Joanna P. Adler. The only other character is a middle-aged fan (Michael Mulheren) who also appears on occasion to offer his praise and recollections of Midge and Leona’s glory days.
Directed with relaxed brio by Michael Blakemore, the play allows Lansbury and Seldes to exercise on their beautifully expressive faces various expressions that convey the adventurous and admirable lives they have lived. It is pure nostalgia for them and for us. Your serve. HH
“Deuce,” through Sunday, August 19, Music Box Theater, 239 West 45th Street. $96 to $76.50. 212-239-6200.