The world that soprano Angelina Reaux captures in "Songs & Deadly Sins" at the Studio Theatre is as familiar to us today as "Mack the Knife" or the musical (and film) "Cabaret."
Reaux's one-woman show opened Sunday night, and she subtitles it "A Berlin Kabarett" to emphasize the darker side of the nightclub life--if "cabaret" was simply to entertain, kabarett was meant as a potent form of social skewering, of sweetly disclosing coarse urban ills to the public using catchy, three-minute pop songs as the carrier. Composer Kurt Weill and writer Bertolt Brecht were masters of this style--their hit musical "The Threepenny Opera" is perhaps the most durable work of the genre. Reaux includes a few of their songs, plus those by several of their worthy if lesser-known contemporaries. (The show's title hints that Weill and Brecht's "The Seven Deadly Sins" is part of the program; it's not, but other songs from their fertile collaboration are here, including "Pirate Jenny," "Polly's Song," "Solomon Song" and "Surabaya Johnny.")
For this group of extremely clever and jaded artists, breathing the frenzied air of post-World War I Berlin, everything was fodder, from alcoholism to prostitution, from unemployment to kleptomania to traffic jams to weirdo compulsions that afflict city dwellers, such as pulling the emergency brake on a train for kicks. Love is here, too, in most cases driven by neurotic excess. These themes are given a sardonic twist when they're set in a seductive musical atmosphere: Bitter expressionism, backed by a tango beat, raises eyebrows and far more questions than it hopes to answer. So the stuff is unnerving to think about but fun to listen to, and that's the point of "Songs & Deadly Sins."
And Reaux has just the right pliant voice to characterize these songs. One moment her opulent soprano soars, with full operatic force, in triumph and optimism, the next it's craggy, twangy, beaten to the ground. Her facial expressions and hand gestures worked, too--as she was always searching how to best communicate the texts.
Yet much of the evening's mordant humor was lost on the audience because Reaux, who was raised in Potomac, sang about half the songs in the original German, with no translations provided. The theatergoers' response was natural: they'd laugh heartily and cheer for the songs in English--because they understood them--and sit stonily through the German songs, limited to applauding Reaux's impressive singing ability and appealing characterizations. Thus her Berlin Kabarett, with soggy accompaniment by Ricky Ian Gordon on the piano, felt a lot like an art song recital, with theatrical lighting and a little acting thrown in.
Angelina Reaux Sings: Songs & Deadly Sins, at the Studio Theatre, 1333 P St. NW, through Jan. 2. Call 202-332-3300.
CAPTION: Angelina Reaux tackles the darker side of nightclub life in her one-woman show, "Songs & Deadly Sins" at Studio Theatre.