BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
Most of the vintage tuners revived in staged concerts by the invaluable Encores! series tend to be cheerful entertainments that reflect Broadway at its diversionary best. Not so the 1949 musical tragedy "Lost in the Stars," which opened Thursday at New York City Center for a brief run through Sunday.
Crafted by writer Maxwell Anderson and composer Kurt Weill — who died at age fifty during the show's original 281-performance run — "Lost in the Stars" is their musical adaptation of Alan Paton's novel "Cry, the Beloved Country" regarding apartheid in South Africa.
In brief, it's a sorrowful story about a young black man killing a young white man during a robbery, the trial that ensues and how their fathers finally unite in grief over the deep racial divide. It's sad, sad stuff.
What makes experiencing such woefulness bearable — even compelling — is the somber beauty and great dramatic intensity of Weill's rich score. Surging with thrilling choral passages, often driven by locomotive rhythms and punctuated by lyrical ballads like "Stay Well," Weill's final completed score is remarkable in its fusion of musical theater styles.
Staged swiftly by Gary Griffin in an animated oratorio-type format upon steps surrounding musical director Rob Berman's keen 12-member orchestra (Weill orchestrated his score for that number), this production keeps the music foremost. Garbed in South African street clothes by Paul Tazewell and led by a dynamic Quentin Earl Darrington, the chorus members blend their voices into powerful resonance.
Chuck Cooper is formidable in the demanding lead role of a back country preacher whose son commits murder in the city. Grave yet kindly in manner, Cooper sings with warm, mellifluous strength — how the music pours out of him! — as he manfully bears his character's tribulations. Daniel Gerroll incisively depicts the other saddened dad. Daniel Breaker looks haunted as the luckless son.
In the role of Breaker's pregnant wife, Sherry Boone sang the "Surabaya Johnny"-ish plaint "Trouble Man" and haunting "Stay Well" — the score's breakout numbers — but proved to be in strained, rather raw voice Thursday. Compensating for that disappointment was the boyish appeal of Jeremy Gumbs as the preacher's young nephew whose bright rendition of a throwaway folk-style chant, "Big Mole," briefly lightened the second act's gloom.
Much as giddy musicals are the crowd-pleasers of its seasons, it's good to see how Encores! educates their audience regarding the serious side of dear old Broadway by sometimes presenting noble works like "Lost in the Stars" and doing them so well. Now then — how about digging up "Magdalena"?
"Lost in the Stars" continues through Sunday at New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St., New York. Call (212) 581-1212 or visit www.nycitycenter.org.