City Center Encores’ Presentation of “Lost in the Stars”

On Saturday I attended the matinee performance of City Center Encores' presentation of the musical "Lost in the Stars," by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson.  This show, first presented on Broadway in 1949, was based on the novel "Cry, The Beloved Country," by Alan Paton.  It presents a vignette from pre-apartheid South Africa, in which a black minister and a white farmer ultimately become friends and reconcile with each other after the minister's son is executed for the accidental shooting death (occurring during a robbery attempt) of the farmer's son.

I thought the performances were wonderful, the production much more minimalist than the norm for this series — no props, just a costumed cast moving about a set of steps on the stage, backed by the chamber-ensemble called for by Weill — and the show somewhat below prime "Weill" territory.  Indeed, the first act kept losing my interest, as the interminable exposition spun out with only occasional musical highlights amidst the less than exciting score.  However, from the moment of the accidental murder (toward the end of Act I) through the end of the show, things picked up considerably, as the "problem" at the heart of the story suddenly became very pointed:  the young man accused of murder did not mean to kill the victim, reacting in fear to a situation where he was about to be apprehended in the midst of an armed robbery, but he refused to lie on the stand and tell a story any different from what actually happened, as a result of which he was essentially pleading guilty to a crime for which the law prescribed the death penalty.  His criminal partners get off free by lying about being present; as they didn't fire the murder weapon and the court finds the evidence as to them ambiguous, they incur no penalty at all.  The honest, repentant man is executed, and the farmer, whose son was killed, admires the young man's honesty and courage and ultimately reconciles with his father. 

I just wish the score was stronger in Act I, and the book and lyrics as well.  Perhaps the main fault is with the book and lyrics, as they didn't inspire the best from Weill.

As to the performers, though, one could not fault any of them.  All the leads were fantastic, especially young Jeremy Gumbs, playing the minister's grandson, who has a light specialty number in Act II that he put over with total penache, fulfilling the promise displayed in "Scottsboro Boys".  Chuck Cooper as the minister, Stephen Kumalo, was totally outstanding, as was the chorus, which had lots to do in this show.  Certainly it was worth hearing, but it's not a show I'd be eager to sit through again.  Which I suppose is what made it a candidate for Encores in the first place, since the idea of this series is to present concert performances of shows unlikely to receive fully-staged Broadway revivals.

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