The 1930s, as reflected in American Musical Theater, were a wonderfully eclectic time, producing both frothy foolishness and some of the artistic triumphs of the 20th century. "Porgy and Bess" opened the same year, 1935, as "At Home Abroad" and "Jubilee," and the union-made show "Pins and Needles" was a surprise hit in 1937, as was "I'd Rather Be Right," a spoof of the Roosevelt administration.
"Rendez-vous with the '30s," which opened the first of five performances at the Smithsonian last night, offers a sampling of this remarkable era, revealing that even our geniuses had their off moments as well as their flashes of brilliance, and that a beautifully performed song can make other deficiencies fade. The evening is strung together by John Houseman reading excerpts from his autobiography, a conceit that has historical appeal even though as a theatrical device it is less than satisfactory. Houseman has the charm of being a living link with this part of our theatrical past, and his memoirs of the period are fascinating--unfortunately he reads them dryly and then sits like a bored panjandrum at the side of the stage, once even looking at his watch as though he was worried about missing a train.
Houseman's life in the theater began as the director of the Virgil Thomson-Gertrude Stein opera "Four Saints in Three Acts," which was the avant-garde sensation of 1934 and is the opening of this show. We can be grateful that it is not often revived. Remember that great song, "Pigeons on the Grass, Alas?" But where else could you get a sense of what the opera is like without having to sit through the whole thing?
The rest of the selections were chosen primarily because Houseman, in one way or another, had a link with them, not because they are necessarily representative of the period. The effort to use other material, such as the Gershwins' "Of Thee I Sing," makes for some awkward segues in the narration.
The particular highlights of the evening were the singing of Ben Holt and Daisy Jackson and Houseman's account of the famous opening of Mark Blitzstein's "labor musical" "The Cradle Will Rock." Houseman, working with Orson Welles on a federal theater project enterprise, had scheduled the opera to open just as the appropriations for the project were due to run out in 1937. In the face of federal marshalls locking the theater, Houseman, Welles and company holed up in a basement powder room and with great difficulty arranged to move the show to another theater 20 minutes before the curtain was due to rise. Since the actors were forbidden by their union to perform "on stage," they sang from the audience while the composer, seated at a rickety piano, played the score of his anti-capitalist opus. The Smithsonian company recreates part of this event with some success.
As for Holt and Jackson--particularly Holt--long may they hear bravos. Both are that rare breed, singers who can act. Holt's Porgy was perhaps the most moving performance of a song heard on a Washington stage this season. Lenny Wolpe and Laura Waterbury provided their own excellence, and members of the Howard University Chorale gave musical substance to the production.
The show plays at the Baird Auditorium through Sunday.