LoveMusik, the new bio-tuner where director Harold Prince and bookwriter Alfred Uhry incorporate nearly thirty songs with music by Kurt Weill to tell the story of the composer's rocky romantic and professional relationship with actress Lotte Lenya, is the kind of show that makes me want to pull my hair out in frustration and scream out at the stage, "Be better! For the love of God, just be better!"
Because the embryonic lump of coal now inhabiting the Biltmore Theatre has more gem-like qualities to savor and enjoy than the majority of fully gestated musicals now playing around town. It just ain't ready yet, but boy has it got a lot going for it.
This is a show where Donna Murphy quietly grasps attention with a hardened and soulful "Surabaya Johnny." This is a show where Michael Cerveris just tears your heart out with a still and lonely "It Never Was You." This is a show where David Pittu, as a devilishly decadent Bertolt Brecht, steals every moment he's on stage. This is a show where there's a real live orchestra pit in front of the stage so you can actually see the musicians!
What's the problem? A lack of consistent tone and a frequently awkward use of pre-written songs are the main culprits. Admirable, the show is not a "hit parade" to showcase the composer's most popular tunes, although it's quite annoying that on two separate occasions there's a build-up suggesting a performance of "Pirate Jenny" that never occurs. Beowulf Boritt's set includes a fake proscenium arch, telling the audience that we should accept what we're seeing as some sort of show within a show and when the creators incorporate the Brecht/Weill style of using songs to comment on the proceedings without having them directly integrated into the story, LoveMusik starts looking like the smartest musical in town.
But the story of a former teen prostitute who falls in mutual lust with a struggling composer, eventually to become known as the supreme interpreter of his work after numerous infidelities, mutual emotional anguish and duo career highs and lows is told via dramatically sparse scenes that give us a skeletal outline of the story, lending little weight to the musical numbers. Inspired by letters between the two, it's exceedingly cold and emotionally distant which is simultaneously absolutely perfect and completely exasperating.
In other words, it's got book problems.
There are absolutely no problems with the outstanding cast. The thickly accented Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy both sacrifice their strong singing voices to portray a dignified and softly sung Kurt Weill and a kittenish, high-pitched Lotte Lenya. Murphy's performance is the stunner, completely losing herself in the manner, look and gritty vocals of Lenya; attractive in their dramatic strength if not exactly in their tonality. But Cerveris is just as wonderful playing the introverted cuckold who can't generate the same kind of passion for his wife that he has for his work. In a perfect opening image, Prince presents us with two lonely souls inhabiting separate places on a darkened stage singing the lush Ogden Nash lyric of "Speak Low," a song that warns of the fleeting nature of love. He is a pitiable object in his cerebral solitude while she sings with a performer's artistry. The entire evening is summed up in a chilling few minutes.
And though setting up Cerveris' bitter "That's Him" as a comment on his lover's infidelity and placing Murphy's wistful "September Song" in a scene where the gay man who becomes Lenya's second husband, writer and magazine editor George Davis (John Scherer, who is refreshingly normal and well-adjusted compared with everyone else) is trying to convince her to make a comeback starring in a revival of The Threepenny Opera are questionable dramatic choices, the stars are mesmerizing in their detailed interpretations. But having a German-accented chorus celebrating Lenya's original Threepenny success with the very Broadway "Girl of the Moment" and setting "How Can You Tell An American?" in a Hoboken that looks like Damon Runyon's Times Square are among the sad misfires.
David Pittu's arrogantly charismatic Bertolt Brecht provides plenty of Marxist relief, whether lustily undulating through "Tango Ballad" with the delectably talented trio of Judith Blazer, Ann Morrison and Rachel Ulanet, representing his mistresses, (with Patricia Birch's musical staging the number might as well be called "Three Ladies") or kicking up his kabarett heels with Cerveris in "Schickelgruber," a music hall spoof of Hitler's upbringing.
Beowulf Boritt's Berlin to Broadway set pieces, which utilize the Brechtian feature of projecting scene titles, nicely balance the realistic with the overtly theatrical, as do Judith Dolan's costumes. She and wig designer Paul Huntley must take some of the credit for the striking transformation of Ms. Murphy into Lenya. Now all we need is a striking transformation of LoveMusik into the kind of musical that's worthy of its creators' high intentions.
Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Michael Cerveris
Center: Donna Murphy
Bottom: Rachel Ulanet, David Pittu, Ann Morrison and Judith Blazer