Leonard Bernstein once described Kurt Weill's music as "a gift from heaven." He wasn't too far off key.
While all the German composer's melodies might not be everyone's choice of celestial Muzak, the Off the Circle Theater Company now performing "September Song," or what is billed as "a concert cabaret," at D.C. space does justice to Bernstein's description, as well as to Weill's works.
Five nimble and spirited young performers make up the company. Thirty Weill songs, spanning 20 years of his career, make up the program. Together, it's a bewitching show.
The dark and decadent theme of a steamy German cabaret seems to cover the small theater as soon as the lights go down. The three actors -- hair slicked back and dressed in baggy gray pants with black shirts -- slip in between the tables of the audience, to the mournful tune of a trumpet. The two actresses -- in black stockings, black frilly skirts and bright low-cut blouses -- perch on the piano.
Suddenly the lights go up, the company jumps on stage (just a few feet away from the front row of tables) and bursts into the first of many bawdy numbers. "We must have dollars or we must die," they sing, picking out innocent members of the audience to boldly bother by begging for money.
The first half of the program is devoted to the compositions of Weill's early Berlin years -- 1928-1930. From "The Three Penny Opera," Wayne Anderson performs a moving "Liebeslied" (Love Song) in German. Two songs later, Gregory Ford does a slow, but sharp, rendition of "Moritat Vom Mackie Messer" (Mack the Knife). Anne Kanengeiser, Bailey Saul and Debra Tidwell take turns singing solo or with partners for many short skit/songs. The only accompaniment for the show is Tom Tumulty on piano and he proves to be the only accompaniment needed.
Anderson's numbers in the show are consistently the most catchy. He's so good that it's easy to not like him. His sinister leers and wicked grins add the perfect perversity for the seductive cabaret atmosphere.
The second half of the show is almost a complete turnabout, focusing on the years after Weill's marriage to actress Lotte Lenya in 1935 and after his move to New York City, where his works took on an American flourish.
From about 1938 to 1948, Weill teamed with such lyricists as Alan Lerner, Ira Gershwin, Langston Hughes and Ogden Nash for an upbeat, flashy Broadway style.
"September Song", "Girl of the Moment" and "Ain't It Awful the Heat" highlight this part of the program.
With a seating capacity of 95 at most, the intimate yet rousing show, put together by artistic director Frederic Lee, musical director Rob Bowman and executive producer Morrie Kraemer, fits well into D.C. space. Ordering a before-the-show dinner, which averages about $7, and a few drinks ($3 minimum applied to food or drink) can even add to the cabaret air.
SEPTEMBER SONG -- At D.C. space Thursday through Saturday at 8 through September 25. Call 347-1445 for reservations.