“Lonely house, lonely me – funny with so many neighbors, how lonely it can be.” These lyrics by the Harlem Renaissance literary figure Langston Hughes summarize the lonely feeling and despair of the residents of the “Lonely House” effectively in “Street Scene.”
This production, on stage now at the The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland at College Park, is the work of three pivotal artists in their fields: poet Langston Hughes, playwright Elmer Rice and composer Kurt Weill.
In the Program Notes to the show, insightful commentary by DMA student Lauren Floyd reads: “The score of ‘Street Scene’ displays both Weill’s compositional virtuosity and stylistic range,” and the musical direction of the orchestra by Craig Kier reflects this strongly.
“Street Scene” – directed by Amanda Consol and considered an opera by some, a musical by others, and an unusual combination of both by still more – starts off on a heated day, foreshadowing the social tensions about to explode in a tenement house in 1940s New York City.
Equally foreboding is the numerical address of the location, consisting of the digits 346 (adding up to unlucky “13,” if we recall the title to Stephen King’s horror film “1408” and these numerals which add up to “13”).
The tenement has six windows, one for each of the different subplots. The play, however, focuses on the Maurrants, where abusive father Frank (played by Andre Boisvert) drives his wife, the desperate but kind-hearted Anna (Helena Crothers), to have an affair with the milkman.
The plot revolves around neighborhood gossip as Anna is torn between loyalty to her husband and happiness with her beau.
Frank and Anna’s daughter Rose finds herself in a somewhat similar situation; she must choose between a man who could guarantee stability and a career on stage, and her potential soulmate, Sam Kaplan, a law student who can give her happiness without near-term financial stability. While the work contains brutality and crime, the real “killer” may not be any one person, but rather gossip which spreads inexorably within the tenement house until violence results.
The University of Maryland School of Music’s production is quite stunning. Musical styles flow between jazz and the symphonic, and between opera and musical.
The bluesy number “Lonely House,” sung by Samuel Keeler, is profoundly moving. The Broadway-style “Moon-Faced, Starry-Eyed” is a standout number with swing dancing between Mae Jones (played by Veronique Filloux) and Dick McGann (portrayed by Christian Hoff).
Then there is also the highly unusual but remarkable “Ice Cream Sextet,” sung as a pastiche of operatic styles. The feuding Maurrants perform soaring arias and duets; the song “She Shouldn’t Be Staying Out Nights” is especially compelling.
The set design and lighting are also outstanding. For example, the play takes place over two days and intervening “night when everything is quiet,” again quoting the poet Hughes in “Lonely House.” The drama’s passage of time is made palpable with a stage light “sun” rising in the east and setting in the west, with shadows moving across the stage.
Despite some bright Broadway moments and a bit of gallows humor in the “Lullaby” sung with verve by two nursemaids (Michele Currenti and Judy Chirino), by now the reader has guessed that “Street Scene” is a dark work. It is in some ways similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” though without the light humor and light romance of the latter. “Street Scene” focuses instead on the conflicted tapestries which humans create through their everyday actions as they choose between duty and desire, as well as choosing between short- vs. long-term consequences.
These themes of choice and destiny are not accidental, for “Street Scene” is being performed as part of the University of Maryland’s “Year of Immigration” theme. This is a commitment for the 2018/2019 academic year via a series of events to “turn dialogue into impact on urgent issues relating to immigration, global migration and refugees.” Bringing this into a “Street Scene” context: While the Italian, German and Swedish immigrant characters provide life and vibrancy in this work’s urban American setting, “Street Scene” composer Kurt Weill himself was a refugee from Nazi Germany and an immigrant to America.
Like the immigrants who bring fresh perspectives and new ways of looking at life to the “Street Scene” neighborhood, Weill similarly brought a monumental contribution to American musical theatre in the work itself.
For these reasons, “Street Scene” is relevant to the U.S.’s current immigration controversies. While the brilliant music and unusual contrast of styles would be key reasons to see this wonderful joint production of the University of Maryland’s School of Music and the Maryland Opera Studio, Weill’s self-styled “American opera” can contribute constructively to the on-going immigration debate.