This revival of The Opera Group’s production of Kurt Weill, Langston Hughes and Elmer Rice’s 1947 ‘Broadway opera’ Street Scene, returning to the Young Vic before a tour, shows John Fulljames’s staging to have been richly deserving of its Evening Standard Award for Best Musical in 2008. Street Scene is a piece that straddles boundaries of musical theatre and opera; Weill’s pulsating and agitated score employs operatic arias, Broadway show tunes, jazz and blues, interspersed with spoken dialogue, building up to one of the most visceral and heart-rendering denouements in either genre.
Taking place over a 24-hour period in sweltering heat on the dilapidated, overcrowded tenement block 346, the home of Jewish, German, Swedish, Italian and Irish immigrants, this adaptation of Rice’s own 1929 play is a tragedy of ordinary folk, in contrast to the satirical grotesques found in Weill’s collaborations with Brecht. While children play hopscotch and draw chalk pictures, the matrons assemble in their faded floral dresses to catch a little fresh air and share gossip and grievances: Mrs Hildebrand’s daughter graduates from high school on the same day that the family faces eviction, the birth of the Buchanans’ first baby is nigh and tempers are running high. A radical elderly Jew speaks fervently about a new conception of society, while the brutish Mr Maurrant (a menacing turn by Geof Dolton) wants everything back to “the way it used to be.”
With Hughes’s lyrics rather swamped by the orchestra (the BBC Concert Orchestra until press night and Southbank Sinfonia Touring thereafter), I was nervous during the opening numbers as to how this would impede the drama (surtitles might have been beneficial). While the acoustics aren’t ideal, it’s fortunate that the emotion conveyed transcends words. It comes together when the lynchpin of the piece Anna Maurrant (played with heartbreaking straightforwardness by Elena Ferrari) pours her heart out about her high hopes for a happy marriage destroyed by her violent alcoholic husband and the sense of abandonment experienced when her much-loved children no longer need her in the aria ‘Somehow I Never Could Believe.’ As soon as Mrs Maurrant’s back is turned, she is torn to pieces by her neighbours, particularly the sanctimonious Mrs Jones (Charlotte Page), her affair with the milkman Mr Sankey being common knowledge and a ticking time bomb until her husband finds out.
Also navigating matters of love are an outstanding pair of juvenile leads: Susanna Hurrell gives a delicately wistful and beautifully sung performance as the belle of the tenement Rose Maurrant, negotiating the advances of her sleazy married boss (James McCoran-Campbell) with his flashy promises of putting her on Broadway and the earnest attentions of Sam Kaplan, the studious nice Jewish boy next door (perfectly portrayed by Paul Curievici), who intends to escape from poverty by becoming a lawyer. Their plan to flee from the prejudices and unfriendliness of New York (strongly echoing and pre-dating West Side Story’s ‘Somewhere’) is expressed with poignant sincerity, made as transient as the chalk pictures that illustrate it by reality. Curievici’s rendition of ‘Lonely House’ is also a vocal and dramatic high point, an all-too-true contemplation of how isolation can be even more potent when surrounded by other people.
Arthur Pita’s choreography shines in a jive number performed with consummate precision by Kate Nelson and John Moabi, bringing a seedy glamour to block 346 (represented by Dick Bird’s iron-laddered set, which accommodates the orchestra) and an ode to the refreshing qualities of ice cream led by flamboyant Italian Mr Fiorentino (Joseph Shovelton). While Street Scene is a piece that is infrequently performed due to its episodic structure and uncertain genre classification, Fulljames’s full-bodied production demonstrates the timeless potency of this tragedy of everyday life and that to quibble about its categorisation is beyond the point.