"Jam and Spice"
Westport Country Playhouse, Westport
Who would not anticipate a retrospective show, a revue, which featured the Kurt Weill songs? And indeed the current show at the Westport Playhouse, titled “Jam and Spice,” sounded promising.
But, alas, this Playhouse show never delivers the goods, never truly captures the dark, heady world of the German-born Kurt Weill! Thinking of Weill, one muses on a dangerous pre-Nazi era, on stinging Brecht/Weill pieces, on “The Threepenny Opera.” And one also recalls Weill’s haunting work in this country—“One Touch of Venus,” “Lady in the Dark,” “Lost in the Stars” among them.
What goes wrong here? Certainly the six competent performers—Carey Brown, Jason Ma, Mary Testa, Christianne Tisdale, J. D. Webster, and Kurt Zischke—are not to blame. All are in good voice. Moreover, the ensemble puts considerable effort into the enterprise, with each number nicely choreographed by Anthony Salatino. Yet this staging and these performances have little to do with Weill’s world.
The concept itself is annoying. The set design presumably represents the back stage of a theater, where the warmly-clad performers slowly enter. They gradually shed coats and hats and begin the show. Why are they backstage? If director Tazewell Thompson has a story in mind, he never develops the idea. Unlike Sondheim’s “Follies,” where the old-time players have gathered for a backstage reunion, the “Jam and Spice” setting is pointless.
Secondly, the revue would have benefited from better-known Weill pieces and fewer of the less popular choices. Moreover, these musical arrangements do not show off Weill to best advantage. “Sing Me Not a Ballad,” for example deserves a slow, aching tempo and not a peppy treatment. And Kurt Zischke, who sings “Mack the Knife,” has a full vibrant voice, but never gives Macheath the edge he should have.
On the plus side are the lively choreography, the energies of the performers, the ensemble and individual singing. Mary Testa, in particular, gives a magnificent, memorable interpretation of “Surabaya Johnny.”
All told, one wonders about the choice of a revue for the Playhouse in the first place. Revues do best in intimate settings—preferably supper clubs, or, at the very least, small theaters. The six players work hard to get a feel of intimacy across the footlights, but the Playhouse’s broad stage does not cooperate.
One can only hope that the upcoming season, with several promising listings, offers more to the audiences.
-- Irene Backalenick
June 5, 2006