A man stands by a lake on the edge of a dock dressed in a black wool overcoat, black felt hat, black suit, black socks, and black oxfords. A slightly built woman with bobbed hair, giant eyes, and a flimsy summer dress rows up and says, "Get in." Sitting with her skirt hiked up and her legs wide apart, she announces, "I'm Lenya."
Such is the promising opening of "Lovemusik," a biographical musical about the relationship between composer Kurt Weill and his wife Lotte Lenya, which unfortunately, peters out at the end. But it's a good story all the same, and the performances by Tony winners Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy make it all worthwhile.
Lenya, as she preferred to be called, is 26 when we meet her, and a fascinating young woman. Unconcerned about other people's opinions, she says what she thinks, bluntly and straightforwardly. From the beginning, she lets Weill know where he stands, and it thrills him. Though he barely knows her, he falls in love.
At this lakeside meeting, we are told nothing about Lenya, and in fact, as the play progresses, we learn nothing more other than she is dissatisfied with her theatrical success, and despite marrying Weill, doesn't believe in "forsaking all others." Reading biographical material of her reveals a much more accomplished and complicated performer than the play suggests, and thus reveals the musical's main weakness -- long on emotion and short on details.
But their tumultuous relationship makes for great theater, and is a much replayed story of what happens when artists marry and try to maintain their careers at the same time, and at the same level as before their marriage. Their compulsion for each other is always superceded by their passion for their work, and in this particular case, the bond between Lenya and Weill, despite raging arguments, separations and dalliances, is never broken.
Their devotion and disappointments ultimately run their course, however, but the music remains paramount. Every time Lenya sings, "I Don't Love You," we sense the contradiction, her need to fortify herself against possible heartache. Weill's tormented, "That's Him," echoes her sentiments. But Weill and Lenya are forever intertwined: Weill composed the music in his head; Lenya filtered it through her body and soul.
Hovering around this relationship is one other person -- Bertolt Brecht, whose poems haunted Weill till the revered writer gave him permission to set them to music. The original unwashed Bohemian, Brecht is Weill's antithesis, captured delightfully and seductively by David Pittu. Coarse and untamed, Brecht's pungent essence permeates the stage as the women wrap themselves around him in the playful "Tango Ballad." Pittu's Brecht is unfettered, much like "Mack the Knife," himself.
Alfred Uhry, master playwright who gave us "Driving Miss Daisy," does well by Brecht, but gives short shrift to Weill's musical legacy, brilliant collaborative successes with legendary American writers and lyricists -- Ira Gershwin, Howard Dietz, Ogden Nash, Alan Jay Lerner, Langston Hughes, Elmer Rice, Maxwell Anderson. Those missing details again.
But we are reminded that his greatest success, to which his name will be forever linked, is the off-Broadway production of "The Threepenny Opera," staged after his death in 1950 at the Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel) in Greenwich Village, starring Lenya.
Murphy's performance as Lenya, which just won the Outer Critics Circle award for Best Actress in a Musical, is sweet and savvy, whoring and wholesome, a perfectly pitched balance against Cerveris's dark, brooding Weill. It is Murphy that is the spark that ignites the audience, the same spark that ignited Weill from the day he met Lenya.
"LoveMusik" doesn't say it all, but it says a lot about these two theater icons, and reading "Speak Low (When You Speak Love): The Letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya" will surely fill in the gaps.
What the press had to say.....
BEN BRANTLEY of THE NEW YORK TIMES: ï¿½Sluggish, tedious and (hold your breath) unmissable.
JOE DZIEMIANOWICZ of NEW YORK DAILY NEWS: "Moody, daring and downright bewildering."
CLIVE BARNES of THe NEW YORK POST: "The book is frankly clunky. But time and time again it is luckily resuscitated by the music and the altogether remarkable performances from the whole cast under Harold Prince's inspired direction."
MICHAEL SOMMERS of STAR-LEDGER: "There are some truly exquisite moments -- but the new musical ... proves to be an uneven mix of striking songs and an alternately flat or sharp script, directed by Harold Prince with flashes of subtle artistry and tons of mostly ugly scenery."
JACQUES LE SOURD of the JOURNAL NEWS: "The show is just a small dud. It's as if Hal Prince were just out of practice. (The last big show he directed was "The Phantom of the Opera," which is in its 20th year on Broadway.) The book scenes are slow and leaden, as if Prince didn't know how to direct them."
LINDA WINER of NEWSDAY: "Its strengths - especially the courageous, ruggedly brilliant performances by Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy - are far more haunting than the flaws are troubling."
ROBERT FELDBERG of the RECORD: " 'LoveMusik' has its entertaining moments, but it should have had a lot more of them."
ERIC GRODE of the NEW YORK SUN: "The performances by Ms. Murphy and Mr. Cerveris, are nothing short of dazzling"
JOHN SIMON of BLOOMBERG: "If you're looking for a musical that leaves its recent and current competition miles, if not light years, behind, 'LoveMusik' is it."
MICHAEL KUCHWARA of ASSOCIATED PRESS: "The production ï¿½ much of it based on letters between Weill and Lenya ï¿½ still feels unfinished and uncertain."
FRANK SCHECK of the HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: "There's much to admire in 'LoveMusik,' including superb performances by Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy in the lead roles, incisive staging by Harold Prince and, of course, the glorious Weill songs that comprise the score."
DAVID ROONEY of VARIETY: "Even when the arty approach feels distancing, the thick German accents muffle the lyrics or the show veers toward melancholic overload, "LoveMusik" is an audacious work that never shies away from taking risks. It remains a beguiling reflection on the complexities of love, unfailingly coherent with its subject matter."
External links to full reviews from newspapers