Collegiate Chorale’s “Knickerbocker Holiday”

As the fates would have it, New Yorkers have the opportunity of seeing rare revivals of two of Kurt Weill’s more fascinating musicals (both written with librettist/lyricist Maxwell Anderson): Knickerbocker Holiday and Lost in the Stars. City Center Encores is presenting the former as part of its 2010-11 season, but for two nights the Collegiate Chorale and conductor James Bagwell presented an especially rare revival of the former.

Based on Washington Irving’s parody of self-important histories of the early 19th century, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, is a tongue-in-cheek, slyly revisionist fairy tale about Dutch controlled New Amsterdam (with knowing references to far-off territories like Harlem). Irving is even on hand as a character, a down-on-his luck gossip columnist looking for income and posterity who manipulates his characters to make the certain decisions (so as not to irritate the wealthy descendents).

Brom Broeck loves Tina Tienhoven. However, Brom is a proud hot-headed American who will physically assault anyone who gives him orders. Tina’s father, the head of the town council, disapproves and arranges for his daughter to marry the new Governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuvestant. Hijinks ensue. The show combines elements of traditional romance and political satire. Through the character of Peter Stuyvestant, Anderson took pointed digs at Franklin Roosevelt, with allusions to the New Deal and the president’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court. (Anderson so disliked the New Deal, he supported Wendell Wilkie and never registered for Social Security).

Ultimately it’s The Threepenny Opera meets Of Thee I Sing. There is a certain unevenness to the show that I think is hard to overcome without strong direction (and I think might only work best in a full scale production). Anderson’s lyrics are rather mundane, a weakness that is particularly glaring when paired with Weill’s music (which was halfway between Weimar and Broadway). The book mixes its satire and romance, but the blending of the two falls short – the plot is absurd and the tone uncertain. The best lines go to the town council and Stuyvestant. The combination of script and score make it an unusual musical which starts to overstay its welcome toward the end of the second act and the score starts feeling repetitious.

Ted Sperling directed the evening with a semi-staged, limited movement exercise with men in tuxes and ladies in evening gowns. The focus was the music, but some attempts were made at movement but strictly limited. This simplicity is the nature of the Collegiate Chorale’s concerts, with the emphasis on the music than anything else. However, I’m not sure if it was the sound system or the venue, but it was at times difficult to understand some of the lyrics, particularly during the company numbers. (For the record, I could make out every single word at their presentation of A White House Cantata at Frederick Rose Hall at Jazz at Lincoln Center three years ago).

Headlining the starry concert was Victor Garber as Peter Stuyvestant, the charming if fascistic governor of New Amsterdam, who captivated the entire audience with his mesmerizing rendition of “September Song.” After playing classic mezzo-belt roles in her recent Broadway outings, the resplendent Kelli O’Hara returns to her soprano roots as the ingenue Tina (and gets the opportunity to soar into the coloratura stratosphere). Relative newcomer Ben Davis sang with a strong baritone that evoked memories of the late, great Richard Kiley. Together, they shared the haunting “It Never Was You.”  Comic support was provided by Broadway stalwarts David Garrison, Steve Rosen, Brad Oscar, Brooks Ashmanskas, Jeff Blumenkrantz,  as a bumbling (the way of the world parallels to current society did not go unnoticed). Bryce Pinkham played Washington Irving and shared a spirited duet with Davis’ Broek. Christopher Fitzgerald was on hand as Davis’ comic sidekick, but the role didn’t offer the brilliant physical comedian opportunity to do much of anything.

The real stars of the concert, though, were Mr. Weill’s original orchestrations and vocal arrangements (he was one of the few composers to serve in that capacity). Bagwell conducted the American Symphony Orchestra with great energy. This concert was recorded by Ghostlight Records for the first complete recording of the score. There is an old recording that was commercially released, made up of highlights from radio performances by the original cast (which starred Walter Huston as Stuyvestant), making this impending incredibly important to the history of American musical theatre. And since Encores doesn’t appear to be interested, perhaps the Chorale will offer Weill and Alan Jay Lerner’s Love Life, which is another landmark score lacking a definitive recording.