Review: 'Kurt Weill at the Cuttlefish Hotel' finds its niche on pier

Weimar cabaret meets Pacifica in “Kurt Weill at the Cuttlefish Hotel,” carving a weirdly effective niche for itself on the Santa Monica Pier. This dark-tinged program of deathless songs from the beloved composer takes environmental theater to a highly specialized place.

Literally, since the West End Theatre is a reconfigured observation deck perched above Mariasol Restaurant at the end of the landmark pier. In a long, narrow room that suggests a supine rathskeller, four idiomatic performers and a keen piano-and-strings combo attack nine familiar numbers with a mix of Sprechstimme and moxie that is often evocative and arresting.

Shay Astar opens with “Mack the Knife,” delivered with a voice plangent and edgy at once, much like her riveting mid-show “Surabaya Johnny.” Slender-voiced Megan Rippey brings a contrasting, precisely correct detachment to “The Barbara Song” and "Pirate Jenny.” 

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Ostensible narrator Sol Mason turns “The Insufficiency of Human Behavior” (here called simply “The Luck Song”) into a saucy thematic embodiment, and creator-director Paul Sand plays his single-red-gloved Macheath figure with aptly restrained savagery.

Expert music director Michael Roth sometimes stretches tempos to the breaking point, and not all choral additions have the same Swingle Singers-like aplomb. Certain less-than-standard songs from the canon might support the ambience even more -- “Sailor’s Tango” and "The Song of the Liquor Dealer" spring to mind -- while the uneasy sightlines give new meaning to lyricist Bertolt Brecht’s distancing effect; a spatial rethink is advisable.

Still, fans of the material may well find this sui generis item rewarding. It’s certainly a promising initial attraction, unlike anything else afloat on Southland stages.

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“Kurt Weill at the Cuttlefish Hotel,” West End Theatre, 200 Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica. 7:30 and 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Ends Dec. 21. $20. (310) 425-8308 or www.thewestendtheatre.com. Running time: 45 minutes.

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