Now starting its second season, the Off the Circle Repertory Co. is well on the way to creating its own identity on the Washington entertainment scene. The current offering, "September Song," is the third in a series of revues devoted to the music of theater composers--in this case, Kurt Weill--ably performed and tastefully, if modestly, produced.
"September Song" could just as well have been called "Kurt Weill's Greatest Hits," for the narrative fashioned by director Frederic Lee is barely biographical and really serves as a device to link excerpts from nine shows. But for a Weill fan, the menu is rich in delights, from the bawdy cynicism of "The Three Penny Opera" to the sophistication of "Lady in the Dark."
The show demonstrates the German-born Weill's extraordinary versatility and his unique gift, especially when paired with the right lyricist, for the dramatic song. Actors love his work not only because the songs tell stories, but because the stories are often so ripe with melodrama and emotion. While this occasionally leads to a sullen intensity that has become its own cliche'--and the Off the Circle company is not guiltless in this regard--when performed with skill the songs have a singular appeal that has sparked an almost cultlike following.
The five company members try to make up with energy what they lack in experience, and succeed surprisingly often. Debra Tidwell, whose big voice is one of the company mainstays, is used poorly in the first half of the show, devoted to works by Weill and Bertolt Brecht, but she shines in the second with "The Saga of Jenny," from "Lady in the Dark," and "Lonely House" from "Street Scene." Her "Pirate Jenny Song" in the first act is strong but lacks shading, and her "Bilbao Song" never seems to get off the ground, burdened by too much acting and not enough singing.
Gregory Ford takes the opportunity offered by the bittersweet title number, and director Lee augments what has become a classic love song by including the little-known scene from "Knickerbocker Holiday" for which it was originally written. It's sung by the character of colonial governor Peter Stuyvesant, whose lead-in comment is, "It's not easy being a new governor." The segment is so successful that one wishes Lee had used more context-setting scenes, particularly for the less well-known musicals.
The company's main flaw here is a lack of worldliness, sophistication--maybe just plain age. With the exception of Wayne Anderson, whose face reveals an appropriate lack of innocence, the performers are handsome and healthy-looking, which hinders their ability to be convicing members of either the beau monde or the demi. But it is generally an evening well-spent, particularly since Lee and the excellent musical director, Rob Bowman, had the good sense to remain faithful to the music, the real star of the show.
"SEPTEMBER SONG," the music of Kurt Weill, staged by Frederic Lee, with Wayne Anderson, Gregory Ford, Anna Kanengeiser, Debra Tidwell, and Bailey Saul, pianist Tom Tumulty.
At d.c. space through Sept. 25.