Exclusively Weill


Best known for his collaborations with Bertolt Brecht, composer Kurt Weill (1900-1950) penned songs of extraordinary depth and power that grounded Brecht’s theater of ideas in everyday experience.

From his early days in Weimar Berlin, to his later Broadway achievements, Weill’s clinically unsentimental, often sardonic music gave a fresh, articulate voice to the dreams and sorrows of the outcasts and dregs of society--in the process revealing their inseparable humanity.

“Songplay,” a skillfully assembled and generally well-performed anthology at the Odyssey Theatre, affords a rare opportunity to appreciate Weill’s genius on its own terms, outside the shadow of Brecht.


Drawing from “The Threepenny Opera,” “Happy End,” “Marie Galante,” “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny” and other works, creator-adaptor Jonathan Eaton has fashioned an evening that offers more continuity than the simple thematic grouping of songs frequently encountered in a revue, though it falls short of a full-fledged theatrical piece.

Hovering somewhere in between, “Songplay” forges quasi-narrative through lines with a sextet of characters who gather in a seaport bar to await the arrival of a ship that will carry them to “Youkali,” (Weill’s ironic ode to an island paradise where dreams come true). As they wait, their voyage takes on a “Waiting for Godot” quality.

Using Weill’s songs as their back stories, the performers sustain single characters throughout the piece. When the conceit dovetails with the compositions, the result is riveting--especially in Melody Butiu’s venomous delivery of a chambermaid’s revenge fantasy in “Pirate Jenny.”

Notably well-executed character sketches include “Surabaya Johnny,” Sandy Mulvihill’s aching confession of her dependence on her scoundrel lover (Marc Cardiff), complemented by Cardiff’s later abandonment of her in “Wie Lange Noch?”

Eaton’s deft juxtapositions create interesting mini-dramas--for example, placing Ramon McLane’s Hebrew rendition of “Havu L’venim” on the heels of Mulvihill and Cardiff’s “Song of the Rhineland” achieves a “Casablanca” moment. Other bar denizens include Christopher Carothers as a breezy American and Julie Gustafson as an ailing streetwalker seeking a chance for a better life. Sean Paxton supplies the piano accompaniment.

Maintaining these storylines is a double-edged sword--there’s far less substance than in the songs’ original dramatic contexts (which are, disappointingly, never identified in the program). At times, the conceit requires distracting contortions that tax Rob Walker’s usually well-focused staging. The brawling segue into “Mack the Knife” is particularly contrived, though the song itself proves one of the show’s high points--as well it should.



“Songplay,” Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A., Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sunday and Sept. 23 at 2 p.m. Ends Oct. 7. $20.50-$25. (310) 477-2055. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.