NZ Arts Festival 2008, Pacific Blue Festival Club
March 12-13 | Reviewed by Diane Spodarek

The Songs of Kurt Weill opened with the familiar notes from ‘Mack the Knife,’ played by a trombone. Soon a voice singing in German filled the space followed by clarinet, banjo, bass and drums, layering the song, bringing it louder and louder to a full house at the Pacific Blue Festival Club.

Janet Roddick, in red lipstick and her hair in a short black bob looked like she stepped out of a black and white 1920’s Fritz Lang movie. Dressed in a white blouse, showing very deep cleavage and a black pantsuit, Roddick belted out the first verse of ‘Mack the Knife’ in German alternating the verses in English. The lyrics are creepy in English, but in German they resonated more so. Wearing flat-heeled tall leather black boots, reminiscent of the SS uniform, I almost expected her to goose step off the stage. Although Roddick beautifully sang the song, I have never liked the lyrics to ‘Mack the Knife’. I don’t understand the attraction to singing about a man who slices up people, but then I had never heard the song in German, sung by such an amazing instrument with perfect tone and control.

The song has enjoyed past contemporary fame due to its pop status from singers who covered it such as Bobby Darin, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong. But its origin goes back to a reworking by Bertold Brecht and Weill in a collaborative work called The Three Penny Opera, which is a rework of The Beggar's Opera by John Gay. The Three Penny Opera, which was about corruption and politics, was an instant hit in Germany in 1928; and it was brought to New York in 1933 where the song ‘Mack the Knife’ was toned down a bit with the references to acts of arson and rape deleted.

‘Mack the Knife’ was only one song of the ten or so performed by the musicians. All the songs come from various theatrical shows by Weill and all deal with down and dirty decadent characters. From soft beautiful low tempo ballads to a full-on screaming screeching jam with banjos, guitars and trombones, each song was carefully and beautifully arranged and tended to, then presented like a severed head on a silver platter to us, the attentive audience. In another song about a murderer, ‘Surabaya Johnny,’ Janet plays piano, her back to the audience, looking over her shoulder. Her gaze seems to say “I can’t help myself” as she laments about loving Johnny, a man a mother would deny giving birth to. Ah, sweet love from so long ago and yet contemporary in every way.

In addition to Roddick, the musicians were: Jeff Henderson, David Donaldson, Steve Roche, David Long, and Chris O’Connor. The short paragraph in the brochure for the festival promoted the show as “…building on their previous success, they have produced a bigger and better pastiche of decadent Berlin and edgy musical theatre.” Weill was a German composer who lived from 1900 to 1950. He left Nazi Germany in 1933 traveling to Paris and London and then finally to the U.S. where he became a US citizen and settled near New York City where he died. Weill’s music includes symphonies, operas and music for the theatre.

With the exception of some experimental sounds and various jams by the musicians, and despite the billing as “edgy musical theatre,” the event was more like a concert than a theatrical show. Roddick never spoke to the audience, except to say “thank you” at the end of the night and when she introduced the band members. The musicians mostly kept their eyes on the sheet music, rarely looking at the audience, rarely even looking at each other except for those jams that they obviously enjoyed. Occasionally, Janet drank from a small silver flask; it was hard to determine if this was a “theatrical” gesture (since the audience laughed) or if she needed a drink. However, the music was fantastic, at times elegant, sensual, and at times weird such as the performance by Jeff Henderson doing something odd and unrecognizable with his tongue and his banjo. Some of the musicians played various instruments; in addition to Henderson’s full range of sax, clarinet, and banjo, the musician who played trombone also switched instruments that I couldn’t see because he sat behind a large group of tall lilies. All the musicians were fantastic. Each musician’s solo was amazing, working by itself and in and out with Janet’s voice.

Some songs were just in English, but I enjoyed the ones in German, even though I didn’t understand a word of it. Earlier in the week, I attended a talk by Philip Glass who was in Wellington to perform his Book of Longing opera. He said English is the hardest language to sing because too many words end in consonant. It’s an interesting comment, and one I fully appreciate. I know many people from Germany, both in Wellington and New York. I have never found the language that attractive, probably because I don’t understand it, but now, hearing it sung, wow, it’s very powerful. Or maybe it’s just Janet Roddick.

The crowd was decidedly over forty years of age, probably mostly over fifty, with a few younger people mixed in. The room was almost full, only a few chairs here and there remained empty. The last song (before what appeared to be a final experimental encore number) was really jumping and there were a few younger members of the audience swinging and bopping their heads, torsos swaying to the beat, rooted to their seats. There was restraint but I could feel a collective urge to get up and dance. When live music hits the groove, sometimes you just got to move. And although the audience applauded after every song, they seemed quite passive. So, I was shocked when the audience went wild screaming for their return when the musicians left the stage at the end of the set. Whooping it up and demanding more more more, to an empty stage, no one moved, expecting the musicians to come back but an amplified voice asked everyone to leave so that the Pacific Blue Club could prepare for the next event. I had never been to a concert and seen so many passive people show their appreciation so physically when it was over. Brecht and Weill would have loved it.

The CD of ten songs by the band was available before and after the show. Since there was no programme for the show, I had to press the CD seller for contact info for this review. At such high-ticket prices a small programme about the music and the musicians would have been appreciated by the audience, after all, it’s the International Festival, people from out of town would likely be attending. A little self-promotion with the website at least would allow the public to access these musicians when it was over.