Where there’s a Weill, there’s a way; Julia Migenes review

In Julia Migenes Sings Kurt Weill the eponymous mezzo-soprano performs songs by the eponymous composer. Kurt Weill, of course, had quite a stage career, including at least two musicals with German playwright Bertolt Brecht, who wrote the books and lyrics for 1928’s The Threepenny Opera and 1930’s The City of Mahagonny. After emigrating to America to escape the Nazis, Weill worked with the fabled Group Theatre, as well as on 1941’s Lady in the Dark with lyricist Ira Gershwin and 1943’s One Touch of Venus with lyricist Ogden Nash.

In her one-woman show, Migenes performs numbers from all of the above. She, too, is no slouch when it comes to stage and screen credits. In the 1960s Migenes starred on Broadway with Zero Mostel as Hodel in the original cast of Fiddler on the Roof. She has also appeared in various operas opposite Placido Domingo and as a soloist for Metropolitan Opera productions of La Boheme and Pagliacci. Migenes co-starred with Raul Julia and Richard Harris as Jenny Diver in a 1989 movie adaptation of The Threepenny Opera, plus Francesco Rosi’s 1984 film version of Carmen.

Indeed, Migenes opens and closes her show with renditions of what is not only Threepenny’s best known song, but the most famous tune in the entire repertoire of both Weill and Brecht: “Mack the Knife.” However, unlike Bobby Darin, Migenes – a New Yorker who has performed widely throughout Europe – doesn’t deign to do so in English. She seems to do so in perfectly pronounced German (she has sung at Vienna’s Volksoper), and most of her ditties are rendered in Weill and Brecht’s native tongue. There is a French song or two too, although there are a few numbers sung in English. For most American audiences who are not very multi-lingual this may be an issue, especially considering that there are no supertitles as at, say, L.A. Opera.

However, the chanteuse does set up each tune up with some verbal explanatory notes. And Migenes then not only sings but acts the songs out with evocative movements, gestures and facial expressions that bestow meaning. During her 20 song set, which is delivered sans intermission in about 90 minutes, Migenes also discusses Brecht and Weill in-between warbling. To her credit the appropriately redheaded Migenes stresses the political character of Brecht’s lyrics, stressing that the class struggle against what we now deride as “the 1%” continues.

Each number is unerringly accompanied by pianist Mitsuko Morikawa. Besides her piano the stage is mostly bare, although there’s a ladder and some stools Migenes uses to good effect as props. There are some spare spotlights provided by Bosco Flanagan, too. The production is directed by Peter Medak, who was Oscar-nommed for helming the great 1972 Peter O’Toole movie The Ruling Class.

Migenes gives a full throated recital and is clearly in command of her subject matter, whether romping like “Pirate Jenny” from Threepenny or as a male sailor wherein she rather expertly spoofs machismo in the superbly rendered “Happy End” (“Sailor’s Song”).

Fun Facts of the Review: Kurt Weill married femme fatale Lotte Lenya – twice! Lenya not only starred in the original Threepenny Opera in Berlin but as the Russian agent Rosa Klebb who tried to kill Sean Connery as James Bond with blades in her shoes at the end of 1963’s From Russia with Love!

This kind of show is an acquired taste and will be best appreciated by those with a sophisticated aural palate. Fans of Weill and cabaret-style music who won’t trip over the language barrier are likely to enjoy Migenes’ bravura performance that is keeping alive a vital part of European culture. There appears to be lots of L.A aficionados of her and this distinctive type of music as the production has been extended to Jan. 16. This only serves to prove that where there’s a Weill, there’s a way.

Julia Migenes Sings Kurt Weill plays Wednesdays at 8 p.m.: Dec. 2, 9, 16; Jan. 6, 13 (dark Dec. 23 and Dec. 30) Saturdays at 8 p.m.: Dec 5, 12, 19; Jan. 9, 16 (dark Dec. 26 and Jan. 2) through January 16 at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. For more info: (323)477-2055, ext. 2; www.OdysseyTheatre.com.

Photo: Singer Julia Migenes and accompanist Mitsuko Morikawa. Enci Box.





Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.