Review: Street Scene, Opera North

Street Scene is a rollicking, powerful production which kicks off Opera North’s first season of 2020. Kurt Weill’s opera is truly a fusion of genres, and is brimming with stories and characters. Featuring lyrics by Langston Hughes, one of the key thinkers and writers of the Harlem Renaissance, and based on a play by Elmer Rice, the action takes place on a tenement building in sweltering Manhattan, occupied mostly by immigrant families. The Maurrants are one of these many families, comprised of Mrs Maurrant (Giselle Allen), who is facing rumours of an affair with the local milkman and Mr Maurrant (Robert Hayward), a frequently drunk, depressed man, who lambasts his family. Their daughter Rose (Gillene Butterfield) is trying to make her own way in the world, supporting her mother whilst facing the unwanted advances of her boss Mr Easter (Quirijn de Lang). The Maurrants’ tumultuous and tension filled domestic life ultimately spills over into the streets of this tenement block and culminates in tragedy.

Despite the central tragedy, what makes this production work remarkably well is the wide scope and the unique way it defies genres. Whilst there are elements of tragedy and drama, there’s also immense joy and moments of rip roaring comedy. The music is brilliant, ranging from brilliant ensemble numbers (‘Ain’t It Awful, The Heat’) to a romantic, intimate duet featuring Rose and Sam Kaplan (Alex Banfield) where they yearn about a world away from Manhattan. In Street Scene, New York City isn’t necessarily the city of dreams and opportunity it’s often portrayed to be, but a stifling, dirty and miserable world full of resentment and regret.

One of the great things about this production is the sheer variety and range of characters and events, all of which are sewn together expertly under Matthew Eberhardt’s direction. Mr Buchanan (Stuart Laing) frets hysterically about his wife who’s about to give birth; Mr Kaplan (Dean Robinson), Sam’s father, delivers an angry tirade about the injustices of capitalism and urges workers to rise against their bourgeoise masters; the kids of the building sing a delightful number about ice cream; and all the while, the deeply unhappy Mrs Maurrant remains the object of judgement and scrutiny.

Gary Clarke’s choreography is astonishing. A standout moment is the brilliant jitterbug dance scene featuring Dick (Rodney Vubya) and Mae (Michelle Andrews), a young couple, bickering playfully and in the early throes of new love. They sprightly and vigorously dance to ‘Moon Faced, Starry Eyed’, offering a much needed counter balance to the darker moments of tragedy that awaits the audience. One of the best things about this show is the array of different characters and their contrasting stories. Whilst not all of them are necessarily as developed as others (understandably so, with a large cast of 30 people) all of them feel recognisable and part of the world of the 1940s Lower East Side. The backdrop of mid-20th century Manhattan is beautifully rendered with a set stunningly designed by Francis O’Connor, featuring multi layered staging representing the apartment blocks, and highlight how this domestic life is itself a stage through which they face endless scrutiny.

All in all, this breadth and variety, combined with stunning music and dance numbers, make for a powerful, overwhelmingly stunning production.

Street Scene is playing Opera North until 20 March. For more information and tickets, visit the Opera North website.