Highbury Opera Theatre’s production of Lost In The Stars – Kurt Weill’s last musical-cum-opera – in Islington’s Union Chapel is actually the work’s London premiere, only 67 years after it was first performed on Broadway. It’s an adaptation of Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the Beloved Country and is set in South Africa in the middle of the twentieth century, at a time when Black Africans were almost universally considered second-class citizens by the ruling White minority.
Following the plight of one rural, black Christian preacher as he attempts to save his wayward son from a life of sin, it is a piece riddled with problematic stereotypes and questionable ethics, which probably made it quite progressive at the time, but seriously date it in 2016. Nevertheless, Highbury Opera Theatre give it their all, and the result is a bold, visually impressive slice of ambitious community theatre.
Stephen Kumalo (Denver Martin Smith) is pastor of Ndotsheni, a small, remote town in the South African countryside. When he travels to Johannesburg to reconnect with his absent son Absalom (Glen Grant), he is shocked to discover that, far from living a life of scholarly piety, Absalom is embroiled in a life of dodgy deals and petty crime. When a botched robbery results in murder, Stephen is forced to fight not just for his son’s life, but for his soul too.
Maxwell Anderson’s book is truly awful: static, slow and drearily episodic from start to finish. Weill’s score, on the other hand, is a delight: relentlessly menacing from start to finish, sprinkled with rural charm in the first half, but descending into a powerfully brooding temper in the second. And it’s played out superbly by Scott Stroman’s band throughout, with several energizing climaxes reverberating around the Union Chapel spectacularly.
Smith – a kindly, sympathetic baritone – acquits himself well as Kumalo, as does Byron Jackson – a devastatingly forceful baritone – as leader of the chorus. There are fine cameos too from Henry Busiakiewicz as a compassionate parole officer, and from Anne-Laure Winkin as the pregnant girlfriend of Absalom.
Most memorable, however, is the blaze of colour that Director Jean Lacornerie has splattered across the stage. Working on what must be a shoe-string budget, he has opted to eschew any extensive scenery in favour of versatile card-board sets, and instead bedecked his large cast in bright, lively, colourful clothes. Working with such numbers, the stage can seem cluttered and static at times, but the vitality and energy these costumes bring is an effective antidote.
Highbury Opera Theatre is a genuinely inspiring example of a diverse local company embracing and engaging with the community around it. Their production of Lost In The Stars – which strikes one as an impossibly difficult work to stage well anyway – isn’t amazing, but with a cast featuring everyone from seasoned professionals to enthusiastic schoolchildren, it really doesn’t need to be.
Lost In The Stars is playing the Union Chapel until 19 October 2016. For more information and tickets, see Highbury Opera Theatre’s website.