Santa Monica has a storied history of artistic and intellectual refugees who settled here to escape the horrors of Nazi Germany. For a glimpse inside this amazing time and place, find the out-of-print memoir “The Kindness of Strangers” by Greta Garbo’s scriptwriter, Salka Viertel, whose Sunday salons at her home on Mabery Road in Santa Monica Canyon provided the cultural heartbeat of this astoundingly gifted group.
Among them were legendary playwright Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill. In 1928 Berlin, the pair debuted their updated musical version of John Gay’s satirical 18th century “The Beggar’s Opera,” which they called “The Threepenny Opera,” and it became a milestone of 20th century theatre.
Filled with criminals and corrupt officials, “The Threepenny Opera” was a politically tinged critique of capitalist society that became a smash success, and made it nearly impossible for either of its creators to stay in Germany. Worldwide productions, a film and cast recordings further enhanced the reputation of this musical, which featured the dark, clangy sounds that Weill was renowned for, the antithesis of sweet, frilly, bourgeois operatic scores.
Two of the hits will be familiar to you: “Mack the Knife,” which was rendered a pop classic by Bobby Darin, and from Jim Morrison and The Doors, “The Alabama Song,” which opens with the lyrics, “Show me the way to the next whiskey bar … .” I’m sure you’re humming it in your head even as you read these words.
While walking along the Santa Monica Pier recently, longtime Santa Monica resident actor Paul Sand was inspired to create a musical revue, “Kurt Weill at the Cuttlefish Hotel.” Jim Harris, deputy director of the Santa Monica Pier Corp., offered him the Observation Deck, a public space above Mariasol Restaurant at the very edge of the pier. On a cold dark night, this is just the place to be ensnared by the music of Weill.
Sand’s revue includes nine songs from “The Threepenny Opera” performed by a cast of four, including two very fine female singers who take the night’s star turns. Shay Astar, whose rich vibrato is perfect for the two solos, “Mack the Knife” and “Surabaya Johnny,” conveys betrayal, rage, unending emotional angst and resigned strength.
Megan Rippey’s higher register suits the material she’s been given, “Barbara Song,” Polly Peachum’s defiant announcement that she’s married the murderer Macheath; and “Pirate Jenny,” a revenge fantasy in which a scullery maid becomes a pirate queen who executes her bosses and customers.
Sand appears as Macheath and speaks, more than sings, “Call from the Grave” and “Forgiveness” wearing a red glove that he wields as Mack’s bloody calling card. His training as a mime is evident in the movements that he has choreographed.
And lanky, leggy Sol Mason (who reminds me of The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards) serves as something of a narrator tying the material together, and performs the “Luck Song,” otherwise known as “The Insufficiency of Human Endeavor,” and “Solomon Song,” which is actually sung in the original by Polly, as she mourns Macheath’s death sentence.
Music Director Michael Roth has assembled a small group that makes a big authentic sound, capturing the essence of Berlin in the 1920s. The musicians include classically trained violinist Tamboura Baptiste, a busker whom Sand discovered playing on the pier.
Called The West End Theatre, the popularity of this run will determine whether it will remain a pop-up or become an ongoing cultural outpost at the edge of the pier.
There are eight more performances scheduled, at 7:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Fridays, Dec. 13 and 20, and Saturdays, Dec. 14 and 21. Drinks are served by Mariasol, so arrive early to get your order in. For tickets and info, visit thewestendtheatre.com.
You could also make an evening of it, as I did, by dining at the pier’s only fine dining establishment, Ristorante Al Mare, the terrific new Italian restaurant right next door to the Carousel. Braised beef short ribs in a pea puree and a spectacular chocolate dessert, along with a terrific Barbera d’Asti wine by the glass, warmed me sufficiently to make that long walk to the pier’s edge in plenty of time for the cabaret. I was honored to meet the chef, Giacomo, and we had gracious service from Luanna and floor manager Tara John. Try for yourself, and maybe sneak a peek at the third floor for the view. ristorantealmare.com
Peter Pan’s origins
I have a confession to make: I’ve never seen “Peter Pan.” But I have just seen the phenomenal, must-see national touring company production of “Peter and the Starcatcher” at the Ahmanson Theatre.
This is one of the most inventive, creative and thrilling productions playing in Los Angeles right now. The cast of 12 plays 100 roles, and the stagecraft is extraordinary, both simple and magically evocative.
A simple rope becomes the framing of a room; recycled materials are given new life in the fantastical proscenium arch as well the minimal props and sets, including toy boats to represent the two ships; and vegetable steamers are put to brilliant use in a drag-style set of mermaid costumes that opens the second act.
This work of vast imagination gives us the “origin myths” that establish the backstory to James M. Barrie’s classic children’s story characters, including how Peter Pan got his name.
It’s a grown up production that calls upon contemporary references, makes outrageous puns, creates hilarious comedy and very low humor, and above all tells a terrific tale with a great deal of heart, with an ensemble cast that will amaze you. It’s family-safe, but you’ll enjoy some adult laughs.
Be sure you catch “Peter and the Starcatcher” before it closes at The Ahmanson Theatre on Jan. 12. Call the box office at (213) 972-4400 or visit www.centertheatregroup.org.
Sarah A. Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for NPR and former staff producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She has also reviewed theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.