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Gang of New York

With a Huge Cast and Ambitious Script, FPCT Captures a Poignant Street Scene

Lots Of People Are Talking: As a couple at the center of a flurry of gossip, Phyllis Burg and Jed Springfield anchor a cast of nearly 40 characters in Street Scene.

By John Barry | Posted 5/19/2004

Street Scene

By Langston Hughes, Elmer Rice, and Kurt Weill

At Fells Point Corner Theatre through June 13

It’s been a pretty heady season for musicals in Baltimore, but Fells Point Corner Theatre’s production of Kurt Weill’s Street Scene certainly stands somewhere near the top. In this musical version of Edgar Rice’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, a New York immigrant ghetto circa 1930 becomes an algorithm of alienation: a breeding ground for all possible variations on loneliness and exploitation. It seems that once transplanted in the United States, a family turns into a structure without a soul—a breeding ground for unrequited love, unconsummated love, unfaithful love, date rape, sleazy affairs, and, yes, murder. And while Street Scene focuses on the magnificently dysfunctional misadventures of one doomed family, the play is driven by a cast of onlookers: rubberneckers, gawkers, gossips, lechers, back-stabbers, Monday morning quarterbacks, political commentators, talking heads, and the occasional sympathetic soul.

When Kurt Weill, in concert with poet Langston Hughes, decided to turn Street Scene into what Weill called a “Broadway Opera” in 1947, they had an ambitious agenda: a merger of musical comedy and grand opera. There are some great numbers here, including hybrids of jazz and operatic arias, but Weill’s score was intended to keep his characters on their toes. His songs are woven carefully into the plot, to the point that in many cases characters’ lines are sung instead of spoken. The effect is Wagnerian at points, but then slips easily back into Big Band.

The plot is pretty ponderous at first glance. A drunken, embittered working-class Irishman named Frank Maurrant (Jed Springfield) tyrannizes his family into submission, but in doing so, he only strengthens their resolve to break free of him. His wife, Anna (Phyllis Burg), scandalizes the local gossips by arranging assignations with a married milkman (Mike Ware, in a wonderfully sappy performance). His daughter Rose (Shannon Miller), meanwhile, has begun hanging out with the sleazy Harry Easter (Stephen Namie), who promises that he’s going to Make Her a Star. Frank’s son Willie (Jesse Carrey-Beaver) has begun inflicting his own brand of tyranny on those around him. Frank, in turn, keeps drinking, threatening, and yearning for the glory days, before all the commies and freethinkers started ruining everything. He gets madder, his wife gets lonelier, and the milkman gets hornier. In true Sopranos style, we’re waiting for things to hit the fan.

A large cast of colorful, not-so-innocent bystanders is waiting along with us. The voice of righteous indignation is provided by Emma Jones (Nancy Kelso), a matron who is both outraged and titillated by Anna’s not-so-secret affair. Upstairs, meanwhile, Danny Buchanan (Matthew Brech) is busy trying to orchestrate his wife’s pregnancy. The Italian opera coach downstairs (John Scheeler), though, is beginning to suspect that his wife (Miriam Browning-Nance) is barren. The sensitive, intelligent Jewish neighbor, Sam Kaplan (Bryon Fenstermaker), has fallen passionately in love with Rose and tries to keep her from the clutches of the boorish Vincent Jones (Rett Warren). Abe Kaplan (Steven Lichtenstein) sticks his head out of his window to offer the occasional withering critique of capitalism. And one unmarried couple remains cheerfully oblivious. Mae Jones (Santina Maiolatesi) and Dick McGann (David Gregory) engage in a show-stopping number, “Moon-Faced, Starry-Eyed,” in which a working-class New York flapper tries to tango with her sailor boy.

Director Bill Kamberger and FPCT seem to have a knack for ambitious musicals and huge casts. The theater’s 2002 production of Parade featured dozens of actors and elaborate choreography; Street Scene has about 40 characters. The score here is a little more difficult, and the play is a long one (about three hours), but an excellent and memorable cast has been assembled to tackle it. Springfield, as Frank Maurrant, gives the play’s most powerful performance—while he’s an embittered and hard-drinking husband, there are moments when we see that he’s desperately in love with his hapless wife and children. Other characters have the same flashes of human failings: Kelso’s Emma is an inveterate nagger and hypocrite but also, despite her hard exterior, a sympathetic onlooker. As the unfortunate Sam Kaplan, Fenstermaker is a little more one-dimensional—the eternal loser—but his fine tenor is one of the evening’s highlights. There are a few rough spots—some of the accents need fine-tuning, and occasionally the choreography gets stale—but you’re not going to find many professional theaters willing to field such a large cast even without dance numbers. FPCT reminds us that, at its best, community theater takes chances on musicals that don’t make you whistle or dab your hankies, but instead make you think. That makes the glitches well worth it.

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