Lyric Theatre, The Lowry, Salford
13 March 2020: 2hr 30min
(This review is of a performance in Leeds on 25th January – some casting could be changed for this week’s in Salford)
With 40-plus named roles, Kurt Weill’s Street Scene (a "Broadway opera", he called it) is not for the faint-hearted among production companies.
The Royal Northern College of Music did it just over four years ago, to great effect. It suited them down to the ground, because they always want to give as many performers as they can the chance to shine (and they don’t have to think about the singers’ wage bill). It was a wonderful show to go out on for the departing head of opera, Stefan Janski.
That Opera North has made such a success of it is really down to its recent policy of recruiting a chorus that is much more than a chorus – rather an ensemble of actor-singer soloists, and giving them, in this case, all but five of the principal roles.
The musical pictures life in a New York tenement on two sweltering summer days and nights with a dramatic climax as a jealous husband murders his wife. There is a whole series of interlocking family and individual stories, and as tragedy overtakes the affectionate nationality stereotyping (Jewish, Swedish, Italian New Yorkers, and so on) the fun of the earlier numbers gives way to something much deeper.
Director Matthew Eberhardt brings lots of lovely touches to the staging, which is on a three-storey-high set of staircases, landings and doors designed by Francis O’Connor. Eberhardt is as adept at marshalling his young charges as he is his many adult protagonists. The children’s song and dance which opens Act Two is one of the highlights of the night and the final scene, in which all the actors and singers unite as a devastatingly powerful chorus, unforgettable.
Conductor James Holmes, a Weill specialist, holds it together with enormous skill. Switching from speech to song to speech-with-music and back again needs perfect timing to avoid a feeling of stop-start, and he has this totally mastered.
Some of the younger performers are among the best. Gillene Butterfield and Alex Banfield, as in-love couple Rose and Sam, are notable for their acting as much as their singing. The same is true of Laura Kelly-McInroy, who has one great number, Wrapped in a Ribbon and Tied in a Bow, as young Jennie on her college graduation day, and of Lorna James and Hazel Croft, as two nursemaids from the wealthier part of town who enliven the final part of the story.
Youth nearly steals the show, too, in the jitterbug number, Moon Faced, Starry Eyed, as guest singer-dancers Michelle Andrews and Rodney Vubya, romp through a routine by Gary Clarke that would not disgrace Strictly.
Claire Pascoe’s Noo Joisey tones as the busybody Mrs Jones are a delight, and so are Dean Robinson’s Jewish left-wing intellectual Abraham, Amy Freston as his teacher daughter Shirley, Miranda Bevin, Amy J Payne and Victoria Sharp as immigrant wives Greta, Olga and Laura, and Paul Gibson as Steve Sankey the philandering milk-money collector.
The guest principals make their mark, too. Giselle Allen, as Anna, the doomed unfaithful wife, has a great aria-style solo early on (Somehow I Never Could Believe); Robert Hayward has found the hurt behind her husband Frank’s hateful attitudes, drink problem and violence and sings his big numbers with impressive power; Christopher Turner makes a comic portrait of Lippo the Italian ice cream maker; Quirijn de Lang is creepily repulsive as lustful smoothie Harry; and John Savournin is a sympathetic Swede as Carl.
And were the cornets real in the Ice Cream Sextet (the true test of any Street Scene)? Only one, as far as I could see, devoured by Claire Pascoe with relish, but then she wasn’t in the sextet and there were so many kids on stage that if they’d all had real ices things might have got out of hand …
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