|MORE FLAT THAN SHARP
|By Mervyn Rothstein
It's a long, long while from May to December, but not as long as the two hours and 45 minutes of LoveMusik at the Biltmore Theater.
Considering the talent and the credits of the new musical's major perpetrators - the 21-time Tony-winning director Harold Prince, the Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and librettist Alfred Uhry, the two-time Tony-winning Donna Murphy and the Tony-winning Michael Cerveris - the above statement seems shocking.
And yet, their musical collaboration for the Manhattan Theater Club, which tells the strange love story of the German-born composer Kurt Weill, the son of a cantor, and the actress Lotte Lenya, who at age 13 was a prostitute, fails on almost every level.
The idea must have seemed intriguing - use Weill's often magnificent music to illustrate the tale, from Weill and Lenya's first meeting in a rowboat in 1920's Germany, to his collaboration with Bertolt Brecht on The Threepenny Opera, to Weill's success on Broadway and in Hollywood while Lenya stays at home and cooks dinner, to their multiple affairs, to Weill's death and Lenya's resurgent stardom in Threepenny Off Broadway.
And what music - "Speak Low," "Alabama Song," "Surabaya Johnny," "September Song," to name but a few; written with collaborators like Brecht, Ira Gershwin, Ogden Nash, Howard Dietz, Oscar Hammerstein II and Maxwell Anderson; and taken from shows like Knickerbocker Holiday,One Touch of Venus, Lady in he Dark and Street Scene, again to name but a few. And while they're at it, include in the mix some lesser known Weill songs.
Only rarely do the songs work to comment on the story or advance the plot. Too often they seem merely added because it's time for music. Prince's staging is wooden, artificial, often stilted. The pacing is unvarying slow, deadly and monotonous. In some numbers, notably a Schickelgruber parody of Adolf Hitler, Prince seems to be straining to recreate the mood of Cabaret, his 1966 look at Germany just before Hitler's rise. But all he winds up with is a painfully extraneous, unfunny and almost amateurish bit of vaudeville.
Uhry's book provides at best some surface tension, never delving into the depths of his protagonists' feelings, never helping us to understand why they are who they are. There's a lot of talk about their mutual infidelities, but the acts, or their partners, are essentially not seen. When Weill tells Lenya in their New York home that he spends so much time on the West Coast because for six years he has been involved in a relationship there that he describes as serious and loving, it comes as a complete surprise. We have never seen, and never will see, his lover, nor will we get even the slightest hint of why he feels the way he does.
The libretto itself is filled with dialogue that roams from the cliché to the banal to the obvious: "I never lied to you; we are honest or we are nothing"; "No one feels his music the way you do; you bring him alive"; "The sound of your voice is the very force of nature; it caresses me"; "I hear her voice in every melody I compose." And, oh yes, "Our love was a dream, and dreams have to die."
And now we come to the stars. Murphy and Cerveris are supremely talented performers. But in this musical, there is no chemistry between them - they seem more like troubled roommates than intense if confused lovers. You just can't believe that a mutual passion has ever smoldered.
They speak with unwavering German acc