Probably the classiest Jukebox Musical of the current century (so much that many will no doubt be enraged that I called it one), this show might be the first since the original production of Pal Joey to get raves and pans not only at the same time, but within the same reviews.
It’s a bio-musical based on the lives of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, featuring Michael Cerveris (as Weill) and Donna Murphy (as Lenya) performing a selection of Weill’s songs, one that does not overindulge in the obvious and includes several seldom-heard gems. Cerveris provides his usual molten-silver vocal quality and gives a fine, incisive acting performance that manages to capture Kurt Weill’s reported real-life personality quite accurately.
Donna Murphy brings all her experience and talent to the monumental challenge of playing one of theater’s greatest and most unique leading ladies, and does an uncanny impression of Lenya’s style while doing a more than superb job on every song she was given. The show also featured direction by the legendary Harold Prince, who gave it an authentically Brechtian performing style that perfectly fits the material.
Unfortunately, all this is rather spoiled by the show’s utterly inept libretto, which plays like a trite Hollywood composer bio from the Forties, and does not remotely match the style of the direction. The dialogue is irritatingly cutesy (e.g. ‘You are loonybirds!’), and the songs, fine as they are in themselves, are as awkwardly dropped into the script as in the most inept jukebox musicals you’ve ever seen—rarely do they have anything to do with the dramatic situation beyond their title. For example, the blatantly sleazy “Wouldn’t You Like to be on Broadway?” from Street Scene is utterly out of place in the scene where Weill and Lenya decide to move to America, and the rapturous love song “That’s Him” from One Touch of Venus makes no sense when Weill sings it about his wife’s latest lover.
That said, there’s a reason the critical consensus on this show basically boiled down to “This is terrible, but you can’t afford to miss it”. However dire the space between the musical numbers may have been, and however incongruous the songs were with their dramatic function, the show still featured mind-blowing performances of brilliant songs (many of which you were unlikely to hear anywhere else) from two of Broadway’s most gifted performers under the coaching of the greatest Musical Theater director of our lifetimes. Yes, the book is an embarrassment, but there is no book I can think of bad enough to make this not worth seeing…I’d willingly sit through the books of Dracula or Lestat if the musical portions were this good. And the cast album, which mostly minimalizes the show’s problems anyway, should be required listening for every Broadway fan.