Union Avenue Opera - Union Avenue at Delmar Boulevard, St. Louis

Lost In The Stars

August 17, 18 and 24, 25

Reviewed by Joan Leyden

Concluding this season of the Union Avenue Opera is the beautiful Lost in the Stars, a musical tragedy with music by Kurt Weill, book and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson. Based on the celebrated novel Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, the work depicts the deep divisions in South African society of the late 1940’s, the crippling effects of apartheid, and the prevailing loss of moral outrage towards its impoverished and oppressed blacks. Sadly, there is much to tell us here about our own society.

The story begins with its main character, Stephen Kumalo, a black Anglican priest, departing for Johannesburg in search of his sister and his son Absalom. Upon his arrival there he learns from his brother John Kumalo that Absalom has a pregnant girlfriend, Irini, and is presently being held in a jail in Soweto, suspected of killing a white lawyer.

Reverend Kumalo departs at once for Soweto with his sister’s illegitimate son Alex, whom he has taken under his wing. When they arrive at the prison, he gains permission to see his son and questions him closely about the charges against him. Absalom admits with difficulty to having killed the man but says it was unpremeditated, and that it happened in the midst of a bungled robbery with two other men. At first the father cannot believe his son, but finally, profoundly shaken, he leaves the prison to try to help him.

A scheme is suggested by John Kumalo – that all three men involved in the incident deny being there, but upon hearing this option Absalom refuses to add this lie to what he has done. His deeply conflicted father, caught in this moral dilemma, is unable to advise his son to lie. Honoring his son’s courage, the father goes to seek out the father of the victim, James Jarvis, to beg for mercy, for a lesser sentence than murder, on the grounds that the firing of the gun was accidental. An adamant racist, Jarvis is unmoved and delivers a long lecture to the suffering father on the inferiority of the black race and the need to enforce harsh discipline. Disheartened, Reverend Kumalo replies softly that this is not what Jesus taught. Absalom is tried and convicted, and sentenced to death. Reverend Kumalo, struggling to save what he can, marries his son to Irini in the prison to insure the legitimacy of their unborn child.

Lacking alternatives, Reverend Kumalo gathers up the new additions to his family and heads back to his village to pass the hours until his only son is hanged. His anguish deepening into despair, he appears before the members of his church to tell them he must resign as their leader, that he is struggling with his faith. They protest, but to no avail.

A brief scene occurs at this point in which the Jarvis grandson befriends Alex, who is out playing. The grandfather Jarvis comes upon them and sternly admonishes his boy not to ever play with a black child. He appears deeply troubled. He has lost his wife to grief and his son, and is himself caught up in a hateful, racist philosophy.

The hour of Absalom’s death approaches when suddenly James Jarvis appears at Stephen Kumalo’s door. He has experienced conversion after witnessing the unseen Reverend’s confession to his pastorate. He would like to become a friend, and offers to help the black church carry on financially. He suggests to Reverend Kumalo that in sharing their griefs and confusions, they may be able to heal together. A faint whisper of a kind of hope…

And now for this production. Kenneth Overton’s performance as Reverend Kumalo is one of uncommon depth and beauty. His singing is superb, his acting a continuing revelation. He owns the stage and the story, and as it develops, he simply breaks your heart. In a large cast, the only other singer who approaches his level is Krysty Swann. Her lovely voice is warm and eloquent, as is her restrained interpretation of Irini.

The range of the score provides unusual opportunities for both its principal singers and the ensemble. There are several notable performances: Myke Andrews as Absalom; Melody Wilson as the sexy, ebullient Linda; Jeanitta Pekins as the wife of the priest; and Stephen Peirick in the role of the murdered lawyer, Arthur Jarvis.

But I did find it distressing that many of the supporting roles were so poorly acted, so uninvested, such wooden interpretations. Although somewhat more believable, Tim Schall missed the challenge of bringing insight into the character of James Jarvis. This caused a meaningful gap at the end of the piece when he is said to have had an epiphany. I fault the stage director Shaun Patrick Tubbs for not helping Mr. Schall to develop this role.

In fact, many of Mr. Tubbs choices seemed ill-advised. I found his staging awkward, particularly the scenes where too many people crowded the stage, taking focus from the principal characters. I would also bemoan the lack of a visual style for the production as a whole. Roger Speidel is credited with the unimaginative settings, and Teresa Doggett’s costumes leave something to be desired.

Putting aside these shortcomings, Kurt Weill’s score soared under Scott Schoonover’s inspired conducting, as did the singing of the principals and the choral work of the ensemble. The performance of the orchestra was, as usual, flawless. And centering all these pleasures was the achingly beautiful interpretation of Reverend Kumalo by Kenneth Overton. Union Avenue Opera has given St. Louis another memorable evening at the theatre.

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