BWW Review: Washington National Opera Takes On A Bit of Broadway With LOST IN THE STARS
In 1949, Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson's LOST IN THE STARS opened on Broadway. Since its premiere and subsequent short-lived Broadway revival in 1972, it has been presented by both opera companies and theatre companies alike. Musically, the argument could be made that it's one of those works that could be classified as both an opera and a musical theatre piece. The blurry lines between the two genres are very much evident in the current Washington National Opera (WNO) production at the Kennedy Center, which features a mix of musical theatre actors and opera performers. Although the production doesn't quite soar, LOST IN THE STARS is a welcome addition to the WNO season simply because it's not performed very frequently - at least in comparison to other more familiar works that transcend the opera-musical divide (SHOWBOAT, for example).
Based on Alan Paton's well-known 1948 novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, LOST IN THE STARS should pack an emotional punch. Set against the backdrop of deeply embedded racial conflict in South, both Stephen Kumalo (celebrated bass-baritone Eric Owens) and James Jarvis (Wynn Harmon) are dealing with sons that have chosen their own paths. Arthur Jarvis (Paul Scanlan) has tried to carve out his own viewpoints about black and white equality and they differ very much from his privileged father, who is set in his ways. Like Arthur, Absalom Kumalo (Manu Kumasi) has left his rural South African home for Johannesburg. He's going against what his father would want for him, but in a different way. Run-ins with the law are common for him, and - though still unmarried - he's about to be a father to his girlfriend Irina's (Lauren Michelle) baby.
Stephen Kumalo tracks down his son in Johannesburg and although he's sad to learn that his son has fallen in with a bad crowd, he's unaware that things are about to get much worse for Absalom. When a robbery goes horribly wrong, Arthur Jarvis is left dead and Absalom is sentenced to death by hanging for the crime. Is forgiveness possible? James and Stephen must both come to terms with their losses, and suddenly the differences in their skin color don't matter as much. Truth. Faith. Those things matter.
Unfortunately, the Washington National Opera production doesn't quite pack the emotional punch that might be desired when presenting such a deeply affecting and tragic, yet still uplifting story. Although this is not the first time that Director Tazewell Thompson has staged this show - it was previously presented at Cape Town Opera and Glimmerglass Opera in Upstate New York - on opening night the cast seemed woefully under-directed - and perhaps even a little bit under-rehearsed. Thompson's lackluster staging choices certainly don't do much to draw out the inherent drama in the piece, or the emotion. The cast, for the most part, is left to meander throughout Michael Mitchell's suitably drab and confining set, and make us care for the plight of all involved without much help or intention.
Only well-established Washington, DC actress Dawn Ursula as Mrs. Kumalo, Lauren Michelle as Absalom's lover, and to some extent Mr. Owens, give us any realistic sense of the raw emotions that the characters are experiencing and the challenging circumstances they face. Michelle's strong soprano is an asset in "Stay Well" and "Trouble Man" and she does well to express her character's complicated emotions in the songs, although she's not quite as strong of an actress in the book scenes. Here, it must also be said that while Mr. Owens isn't giving an acting performance that would garner him any major acting awards anytime soon, he does an exponentially better acting job than is usually the case for an opera singer. His well-trained, textured voice is certainly an asset - particularly on the title number - but his strong attempt at letting the character's experience fully shape his performance, rather than his beautiful voice, should absolutely be commended.
Yet, strangely, the strongest acting and musical moment comes from an unexpected source. The work gives us a little glimpse of hope for South African racial relations in a scene between two young Kumalo and Jarvis boys - Alex (Caleb McLaughlin on opening night) and Edward (Tyler Bowman) in Act Two. McLaughlin steals the show with "Big Mole." What was previously a production mostly devoid of energy, passion, and rawness, is no more - at least for a few moments. It's a pure moment, giving the audience a sense that hope is not all lost.
The production has a few other assets. The choral work is particularly strong, especially on "Cry, the Beloved Country" and John DeMain's technically accomplished orchestra makes the music mostly satisfying to hear. Sadly, without the emotion and passion and focus on telling a tragic story above all else, one has to ask is that enough.
LOST IN THE STARS plays at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts' Eisenhower Theater - 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC - through February 20, 2015. For tickets, call the box office at 202-467-4600 or purchase them online.