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Wednesday, March 13,2013

Dark triumph

MSU Opera Theatre’s experimental hybrid packs a powerful punch

by Tom Helma

Tuesday, Oct. 23 — Is it opera or theater? MSU’s production of “Kurt Weill: 2012 But the Days Grow Short … ” is both — the equivalent of two one-act pieces of musical theater joined at the hip. However this is not what you might remember as your grandpapa’s Italianate melodrama. The MSU College of Music’s Melanie Helton put this show together, an amalgam of nine vignettes — a resurrection of Weill’s “Mahagonny Songspiel,” combined with 20 other individual songs excerpted from a range of other Weill productions to create a more-or-less cohesive whole. The show ran last weekend only.


One thing that is very clear is that the MSU College of Music has a heck of a lot of talented soloists. Each of the 14 performers takes turns carving out distinct vocal characterizations and advancing the plot, a dark story of a post-9/11 America with buttoned-down security and an absence of individual rights.


The production is short on choral numbers, but made up of one of the most powerful on-stage pit orchestras this community has ever seen. At times, instrumentalists perform playful duets with singers. The show opens with a disorderly dissonance as Bessie (Tara Metcalf) and Jessie (Anne Weiss) take turns belting out a “Welcome to Mahagonny.” They are joined by the four others who make up the ”Songspiel” portion of this play for a demented distorted version of what a Broadway play number might look like in a surrealistic world.


The second half of the show opens with Class Clown (Peter Boylan) dazzling the audience with bright red hair, matching boa and vaudevillian moves that don’t quit. Elizabeth Hoard follows, as Claire Levant Vasquez, and knocks out a theatrical “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” number, reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich, bouncing up and down from an onstage chair, combining ditzy modern dance moves with deliciously seductive singing.


First trumpet Nathaniel Bean shows up in several numbers as a supportive second to several singers, and there is a moment where he steals the stage along with tenor sax Nicole Tallon. Focus shifts from whoever was singing at that moment over to the orchestra where these two are obviously enjoying the moment.


One unique aspect of this production is that the orchestra is actually a part of the storyline. A few of the musicians actually have lines to speak, and when not playing, they lounge around or walk over to observe what others are doing. All of this is held together tightly in the loving hands and holding environment of Matthew Forte doubling as actor and musical director.


“Days Grow Short” ends with a roundup of nearly every actor on stage sent off to re-education concentration camps. There is a chilling emotionality to this as we reflect on Weill’s escape from Nazi Germany, realizing that none of this music would have existed if he had not fled.

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