A Song About Forever
nytheatre.com review by Jason Jacobs
March 26, 2009
A Song About Forever, the debut outing by The Kurt Weill Project, offers an insightful and intimate evening of Kurt Weill music in a distinctively jazz style. The ensemble—Frank Ponzio (piano), Peter Donovan (bass), Vito Lesczak (drums), and Hilary Gardner (vocals)—has been exploring Weill's songs in the rehearsal studio, and the show has the feeling of artists gently inviting an audience into their process for the first time. Walking in, I was curious about the word "project" and, thinking as a theatre person, I wondered what the theatrical approach might be. I soon realized the emphasis here is a musical investigation of Weill's work, probing his melodies and rhythms, moving the songs in unexpected directions, searching for new discoveries. It's not theatre, but the performance radiates the sense of passion, collaboration, and curiosity that fuel any worthy artistic project.
Weill's songs are theatrical in any setting and invite all types of interpretation. There's a marked distinction between the dissonant tones and barking rhythms of his early German songs—most famously in his collaborations with Bertolt Brecht on Threepenny Opera and Happy End—and the smoother, flowing melodies of his Broadway and Hollywood songs. These musicians tend to favor the latter, mostly choosing songs from lighter works set to the lyrics of Burton Lane, Alan Jay Lerner, and Maxwell Anderson. Gardner's syrupy rich voice is the perfect instrument to express the frustrated desire of "I'm A Stranger Here Myself," and I was moved by the longing and loneliness she communicated across the plaintive refrain of "Foolish Heart" (the lyrics are by Ogden Nash).
The three musicians are never mere backup for Gardner. While her intelligent delivery and poised presence are constant throughout the evening, each song features a breakout for one of the instruments to probe the song in a solo. This creates a sense of give and take, allowing all the musicians to express their ideas. The ensemble presence is also felt through the adventurous arrangements of the songs. Together they demonstrate an ongoing impulse to find something new in the music, which I suspect will be the most fascinating and/or frustrating part of the experience for Weill devotees. They are at their boldest in their re-working of "Mack the Knife," with the familiar lyrics scatted by Gardner over a little-known waltz called "Marterl"—creating a surprising new approach to this most standard of standards. Their exquisitely delicate take on "Yukali" (sung in its original French) is the right musical touch to express the utopia conjured in the lyrics. On the downside, I found their extremely slowed-down version of "Speak Low" too drawn-out and drained of feeling. And while Gardner insightfully asserts that the outrage expressed in "Pirate Jenny" may correspond to how many working Americans feel, especially in the week of the AIG bonuses scandal, her vocal delivery never loses its sweetness or its control, and the seductively mellow percussive arrangement plays against the vitriol of Brecht and Marc Blitzstein's lyrics.
Still, it's a very enjoyable hour of music offering many moving moments. I don't know if it's possible for jazz to be dramatic, but it would be interesting to hear these musicians explore a more theatrical approach to some of the songs. And it would be great to see Gardner make a bolder style choice: her clothing, hair, and makeup are so understated she looks like she's still in rehearsal, whereas her three male collaborators, suited in debonair black tie, are ready for showtime. It would be an easy improvement to raise the bar on an otherwise fine performance.