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Lost in the Stars, a metaphor then….and now

In the 1930s, The Depression brought on a generation of soul-searching that lasted through the second World War and on through burgeoning prosperity in the 50s. Perhaps the most enduring gauges for the mood of the country then are found onstage. During the early 20th century, nowhere else was the examination of economics, class and race so personal and so acute.

Now, some 75 years out, two recent productions illuminated some of the same issues that resonate today. At UCLA, Lost in the Stars, composed by Kurt Weill with book by Maxwell Anderson, played for two energetic performances for the first time since our selectively segregated country effectively put the kibosh on its 1949 tour. An adaptation of the novel Cry, the Beloved Country set in Apartheid South Africa, the production was a feast of sight and sound set within an empty stage.

The novel exposed harsh circumstances for Africans living in South Africa, but Weill’s Lost in the Stars made it a metaphor for the same conditions in the American south. Minister Stephen Kumalo (Justin Hopkins) travels to Johannesburg to find that his son, Absalom (Samuel Stricken), has landed in prison while his son’s girlfriend, Irena (Lauren Michelle) is pregnant. The pastor’s white benefactor, Arthur Jarvis (Will Bond), is drawn into the family’s plight. Their fates become forever intertwined when Absalom foolishly joins with friends to rob Jarvis. As the young man confronts him, Absalom accidentally shoot him dead. As Kumalo awaits his son’s execution for the crime, Arthur’s father appears, and the two men grieve together.

Although the libretto is purposely stilted indicating the South African patois, it rises in power through the interpolation the Weill’s imaginative use of American song idioms. From Blues, Broadway, gospel and more, the variety and power of Weill’s music enlivens Anderson’s spare dialogue. Although “Lost in the Stars” rings down ActOne, in my book the most plaintive is “Tixo, Tixo, Help Me” sung by Kumalo, and the most powerful anthem is the novel’s namesake, “Cry the Beloved Country” delivered by the ensemble.

This presentation came together as an extraordinary collaboration between the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, SITI’s director, Anne Bogart, as well as the Albert McNeil Jubillee Singers and Los Robles Master Chorale. It was the last of LACO’s “Lift Every Voice,” a 2-week program of performances that celebrated the work of Rabbi Joachim Prinze, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Kurt Weill. The result is as striking as the thought that, even now, the issues of race and injustice are still hotly debated.

PHOTO (Reed Hutchinson): L-R, Angelo Johnson (Johannes/chorister), Meloney Collins (Linda) and Daniel J. Ozan (chorister)

UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance (CAP) presented Lost in the Stars at Royce Hall on the UCLA Campus in Westwood on January 28 and 29, 2017. For information on UCLA’s CAP programs phone (310) 825-2101 or HYPERLINK ""