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The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny
NEW YORK CITY
Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater
Carrico and Short, Weill's Jenny and Jimmy at MSM
© Carol Rosegg 2013
Bertold Brecht's polemics about class struggle, corrupt capitalism and the evils of mankind in general seem almost quaint today, even though the divide between the rich and the poor is, of course, an ever-present issue. The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930), which uncannily predicts the emergence of Las Vegas as "Sin City," couldn't possibly draw blood today in the same way that its creators originally intended it to, with its deliberate alienation and dismantling of operatic conventions. Nonetheless, it still has going for it the insidious attractiveness of Kurt Weill's catchy, lilting score, a (for the time) brilliantly original synthesis of jazz, cabaret and early-twentieth-century classical music, also on display in the team's contemporaneous Threepenny Opera. In addition, as the Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater's ambitious production of Mahagonny (seen opening night, Apr. 24) demonstrated, great singing, believable characterizations and genuine emotional connection go a long way toward enabling this intriguing piece to retain its singular impact.
There was plenty of Verfremdungseffekt (alienation) on display, to be sure; this quality was especially well-embodied by Cree Carrico as Jenny Hill, the leader of a group of prostitutes en route to Mahagonny, as she sang the immortal "Alabama Song." Carrico, who had a gleaming, focused ping to her tone and a Louise Brooks haircut, commanded the stage with her studied affectlessness. She softened, however, in her scenes with Aaron Short, playing Jimmy Mahoney, a doomed, pleasure-seeking lumberjack from Alaska who commits the cardinal sin of being unable to pay his bar tab. Although very little in the libretto and music implies any actual depth of feeling between the two, Carrico and Short managed to convey genuine warmth and tenderness. Although this contradicts the Brechtian dictum of "lack of emotional involvement," it actually carried the day, best embodied by the image of Carrico slumped despairingly over Jimmy's coffin after his court-ordered execution. As Jimmy, Short displayed a robust, mature tenor that has the flexibility to be tender and plaintive one minute, then ringing and vibrant the next. When he lamented his misfortunes, he summoned enough dramatic heft to make the moment register as a plea for mercy on behalf of all of humanity, not just himself.
The trio of miscreants who established Mahagonny was especially fine. As Leocadia Begbick, the Founding Mother, Rachelle Pike offered a pulsing, opulent mezzo, good diction and true pitch. The disconnect between her deliberately stolid speaking voice and her fully operatic singing voice seemed odd at first (the dialogue was in English, the singing in German), but she emerged as an authoritative presence whose expressive, watchful eyes helped set the immoral tone of the proceedings. Peter Tinaglia, as Fatty the Bookkeeper, was very good at spitting out rapid-fire lyrics as he read from a newspaper headline. And the physically imposing James Ioelu, as Trinity Moses, was especially energized in his role as prosecutor in the corrupt court of justice, almost gleeful in denouncing the wickedness of Jimmy's crime, and vociferous in his demands that justice be served. As Jimmy's cohorts from Alaska, Scott Ingham (Jack O'Brien), Jason Cox (Bill) and Brett Harrison Vogel (Joe) sounded magnificent singing together in an a cappella trio extolling the great outdoors, and then urging Jimmy to snap out of it and stay in Mahagonny. Ingham was very funny in the Gluttony scene, continuing to sing surprisingly well even as he devoured a large rack of ribs, then collapsing face down onto his plate.
The ensemble singing was tremendous, as one might expect from a group of conservatory-trained vocalists. This was marred only by some occasional rhythmic uncertainty. Conductor Kynan Johns was energetic and clear, but there still seemed to be a frustrating disconnect between pit and stage in some of the choral sections. Dona D. Vaughn's imaginative, well-judged production supplied the self-conscious tawdriness — several set changes were accomplished by having an actor pull a long drab curtain across the stage — but also provided enough realism to allow the show to have a profound emotional impact, and not just the confrontational, distancing one the writers intended.
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