Allentown, PA — Kurt Weill’s American opera “Street Scene” was a revelation when it opened in 1947: a piece of musical theater that — to great acclaim — bridged the gap between classical opera and the vitality of American jazz and blues. Featuring a Tony Award-winning score and vivid, vivacious lyrics by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, “Street Scene” was hailed by the New York Times as “a musical play of magnificence and glory.”
Muhlenberg College will present Weill’s groundbreaking work in an ambitious full-scale production, March 26-29, featuring a 35-piece professional orchestra, a cast of more than 50 performers, and guest artists Ed Bara and Lauren Curnow in the lead roles. The show is a co-production of Muhlenberg’s Department of Theatre & Dance and Music Department.
“An opera of this scale has never been scene in the Lehigh Valley,” says Charles Richter, professor of theater at Muhlenberg and the production’s director. “I think audiences will be carried away by the magnificent music of Kurt Weill, as performed by these great singers and musicians.”
“Street Scene” premiered on Broadway in 1947, with a book by Elmer Rice, based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1929 play of the same name. Passions stir and gossip swirls in the brutal summer heat of a tenement in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan in the late 1920s. It’s a world filled with hope, violence, and love, in which the characters struggle — some to rise up, some to get out, some to find joy, some simply to survive.
“The play deals in issues of social justice and oppression, and the idea of how we interact with others to control our lives,” Richter says. “These issues never loses its relevancy.”
The production receives funding from The Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, New York, and from the Dexter F. and Dorothy H. Baker Foundation. Additional funding comes from The Amaranth Foundation and The Bessie S. Graham Music Trust.
The Charles A. and Leona K. Gruber Lectureship in the Arts has underwritten the participation of guest artists Bara and Curnow. In addition to their mainstage performance, they are presenting a concert recital titled “‘Street Scene’ and the Broadway Stage,” March 14 at 2 p.m., and a series of vocal master classes for advanced performance students, Feb. 21 and March 13.
“The guest artists have been a great inspiration to students,” says Michael Schnack, the production’s musical director and a member of Muhlenberg’s music faculty. “The students are smart about it. They consciously observe how the professionals go about their work.”
Schnack has been working with the students since early January to help them master the sophisticated musical score. He will also conduct the 35-member orchestra.
“Working on this score is not only difficult; it requires a vocal maturity that is challenging for singers of any age,” Schnack says. “They have to sing like opera singers, act like actors, and speak like actors, all with no microphones, over an orchestral underscore. And they’re rising phenomenally to the challenge. Working on this production has inspired students to consider classical singing as a viable option for them as a career.”
Curnow and Bara are both veterans of the Muhlenberg stage. Curnow, a 1996 Muhlenberg graduate, was last seen as Marion in Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre’s “The Music Man.” She has performed professionally around the world for more than a decade, with such companies as Wolftrap Opera, the Santa Fe Opera, the Opera Theater of St. Louis, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. She holds masters degrees from The Juilliard School and The Curtis Institute of Music.
Bara recently played King Arthur in MSMT’s “Spamalot,” as well as Caiaphas in 2013’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” and the title role in 2010’s “The Mikado.” He has been heard in 14 countries and some of the world’s most prestigious venues, including The National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall, New York. In all, Bara has performed in more than 100 feature roles of opera, oratorio and theater. He is also a featured soloist on over a dozen orchestral recordings for Sony-Vox Classics, Time-Warner, and Lyrichord Records.
“With my voice type, I get to play villains a lot,” Bara says. “This character is a strong villain with opportunities for good, strong, big singing, which I really appreciate. I don’t often get the opportunity to sing this fully.”
Curnow and Bara play Anna and Frank Maurrant, a married couple whose marriage is on its last legs. Anna is having an affair — despite the looming threat of violence from her abusive husband. Their teenage daughter, Rose, longs to escape the tenement and her father’s temper and live an ordinary life.
“The show catches Frank at the end of a long declining slope,” Bara says. “The audience never gets a chance to see a good side. He has lost faith in his family and society. He’s really angry and tired, so he starts to drink and becomes extraordinarily violent toward everyone he cares about. He will be the villain of the play — but ‘Street Scene’ features no straightforward ‘good people.’ All of the characters are flawed.”
Curnow adds: “This production is exciting to work on because of its current cultural relevance. Despite its classical roots, it has modern elements of story and music, and audiences will be able to really connect with the emotional life of the story and the struggles that the characters are going through.”
Curtis Dretsch designed the scenery for the production — the exterior of an early 20th-century New York tenement house. Lara de Bruijn designed the costumes. Gertjan Houban designed the lighting. Karen Dearborn choreographed.
Muhlenberg College is a liberal arts college of 2,200 students in Allentown, Pa. The college offers Bachelor of Arts degrees in theatre and dance. The Princeton Review consistently ranks Muhlenberg’s production program in the top ten in the nation, and the Fiske Guide to Colleges lists both the theatre and dance programs among the top small college programs in the United States. OnStage.com recently named Muhlenberg’s program the sixth-best Bachelor of Arts in Theatre program in the country.
Performances of “Street Scene” are March 26-29: Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $22 for adults and $8 for children and students, as well as for LVAIC faculty and staff. Performances are in the Empie Theatre, in Muhlenberg College’s Baker Center for the Arts, 2400 Chew St., Allentown.
Tickets and information are available at 484-664-3333 or www.muhlenberg.edu.