Talents of Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, adapter Jonathan Eaton, and director Rob Walker converge, coalesce, and combine to create a song story of strangers brought together somewhere between Mandalay and yesterday in a shadowy, seedy gin mill with a rich patina of chiaroscuro and memory. They find it deserted but for a piano player, who lines up several shots of whiskey, downs each at a gulp, and never says a word. He may be a ghost, but he sure can tickle those ivories.
And the saloon may be a way station between heaven, hell, and wherever—it's purgatory, perhaps. Outward-bound travelers arrive like flotsam and jetsam, heavily laden with baggage, symbols of impermanence. Among them, Melody Butiu's lush-lipped Polynesian island girl Jenny, curvaceous in something sarong-like, sings Threepenny Opera's "Pirate Jenny" with menace and rare distinct diction—the best I've ever heard that song. Ramon McLane's traveling man Freddy (self-styled "raconteur and entrepreneur") has a high clear voice that verges into falsetto in "I'm Your Man," "Havu L'Venim" and others. Christopher Carothers, clean-cut and boyish (and well-remembered as the naïve juvenile in When Pigs Fly), is Jimmy, introducing himself with "How Can You Tell an American." He makes sweet sentimental love to Madelon (Julie Gustafson) with "Speak Low," but he's out of place among these hard-bitten adventurers. Brechtian characters who fit right in, though, are Sandy Mulvihill's sultry Lilli and Marc Cardiff as her man—bald-pated, battle-scarred, jack-booted Johnny, the ultimate Nazi brute. Mulvihill's richly layered mezzo-soprano and emotional intensity make her "Barbara Song" and "Surabaya Johnny," the quintessential torch song, again, the best I've heard.
Dazed, disoriented, out of place and out of time, Gustafson's Madelon arrives late, wearing a white shawl over her shirtwaist blouse and long dark skirt, with a sassy hat on her blonde head that's a crowning touch. It proclaims her more than meets the eye and costume designer Bill Lee a virtuoso, which he certainly is. Gustafson's long, flaxen hair and the sheen on her pretty face give her the look of a bisque doll.
Highlights include Cardiff's rousing, muscular "Mandalay" and his poignant "Wie Lange Noch?" sung in German as he departs, Lilli having come to her senses and washed that man at last out of her hair. Lilli and Johnny split. Jimmy and Madelon tenderly merge. And the travelers wait, transfixed, while their departing ship signals last call from the dock. They may be there still, along with the diligent, talented pianist Sean Paxton (he's also musical director).
Jaret Sacrey's set is a spellbinding marvel of baroque artifacts mellowed by time. Its evocative bamboo curtain in the corner often is bathed in crimson by clever lighting designer Timothy Kiley. Carol Abney's lively choreography may be performed on tabletop or bar. Altogether, this thrillingly theatrical Kurt Weill Songplay should not be missed by fans of Weill, Brecht, Ron Sossi's Odyssey, or any theatre lover.
"Kurt Weill Songplay," presented by and at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Aug. 11-Sept. 30. $20.50-25. (310) 477-2055.