THAT WHIRRING NOISE you hear is Kurt Weill spinning in his grave. When he and Bertolt Brecht wrote Threepenny Opera, Happy End, and Mahagonny, they never dreamed that their operas would be performed in the ballroom of the Somerset Hotel, in front of a group of Scotch-sipping, fur-clad, overstuffed suburbanites. The producers of September Song have done to Weill exactly what Brecht complained had been done to Billy's Bawd House in Balbao: "They've made it bourgeois."
If you can get over the initial shock of the atmosphere at the Musical Theatre II, and the overamplification provided by the jungle of microphones in front of the stage, September Song can be an enjoyable evening. The show presents a fairly accurate survey of Weill's work, divided neatly into two acts, the first mostly political, the second heavy on the old-fashioned show biz. Weill composed for lyricists as diverse as Brecht and Ogden Nash, and the creators of September Song have culled the best of all his lyricists for their show.
September Song's first section consists of a large chunk of Threepenny Opera. The cast-does a fairly good interpretation of this masterpiece of the Brecht-Weill collaboration, although Marc Blitzstein's creaky English translations, especially of "How to Survive" and "Pirate Jenny," are beginning to show their age. Blitzstein's lyrics do not fit the rhythm of the music as well as they should, and it may well be time for someone to try his hand at a new version. Blitzstein's "Mack the Knife," of course, will never be replaced, but the rest of his songs are uneven in quality. Jerry Lanning's interpretation of "Mack" owes a lot to Tony Bennett, and Judy Lander isn't Lotte Lenya, but they are both good night-club performers, and later in the act show some acting talent as well.
LANNING'S VERSION of the Bilbao Song, a favorite of every dance band leader from Phil Spitalny to Lester Lanin, has style, good pacing, and impressive delivery, as does Hal Watters' interpretation of "Johnny's Song" from Johnny's Johnson. The high point of the first act, however, is the company's performance of "As You Make Your Bed," from Mahagonny, a bitter comment on the rise of Nazism. "Progress," with lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner '40, is a humorous, entertaining comment on the American economy which gets a good audience reaction.
The first act in general is a bit uneasy, with a cast not quite suited for political theatre performing for an audience looking for yuks. The second act, however, goes over better. Margery Cohen's readition of "That's Him," from One Touch of Venus, is impressively suited to Ogden Nash's lyrics. Lanning runs into trouble, however, with his "September Song." His jut-jawed, toothless version is obviously patterned after Walter Huston, but comes out sounding so much like Al Jolson that you expect him to genuflect and cry out "Mammy" at the end. Cohen and Lander do a witty, sultry, perfect interpretation of Langston Hughes's lyrics from Street Scene.
In case you missed the revival of the Weill-Maxwell Anderson Lost in the Stars which passed through town a few weeks ago, September Song gives you a chance at least to hear some of the numbers. Unfortunately, most of the songs in this show depend on their context, but "Train to Johannesburg" and "Cry the Beloved Country" communicate some of the force of the original.
IN A YEAR when Charlie Chaplin has finally been readmitted to the country, it is equally refreshing to see another great artist revived from a politically-imposed obscurity. Weill's music is durable, his lyricists talented, his message irrepressible. Perhaps some of his ideas rub off or the suburban crowd. You never can tell.