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A thoughtful revival of 'Lost in the Stars' from Washington National Opera

A thoughtful revival of 'Lost in the Stars' from Washington National Opera
Wynn Harmon, as James Jarvis, embraces Eric Owens, as Stephen Kumalo, in Washington National Opera's "Lost in the Stars (Karli Cadel)

Prevailing wisdom contends that "Lost in the Stars," the 1949 "musical tragedy" by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson about racial conflict in Apartheid-era South Africa, is severely flawed, a case of noble intentions ending in failure. Washington National Opera begs to differ.

The company makes a thoughtful case for the work in a production that originated in 2011 at Cape Town Opera.

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Any return to "Lost in the Stars" requires adjustments of one kind or another.

The music refuses to be all-Broadway — where it ran for a decent 286 performances — or all-opera. Such a hybrid isn't going to appeal to everyone equally.

The story, based on Alan Paton's novel "Cry, the Beloved Country," is also problematic. To 21st-century sensibilities, it can seem patronizing and condescending to blacks, even as it tries hard to underline racial injustice.

It takes an effort to see the piece through a 1940s prism, to keep from flinching at some lines and incidents, or wishing that the scenario could be reworked to reflect more enlightened views.

This staging of "Lost in the Stars," directed by Tazewell Thompson, deals honestly and unapologetically with what's in the book, the lyrics and the music. Given how directorial fiddling is so rampant, updating so routine these days, it's all the more remarkable to find everything here taken at face value and treated with respect.

Against Michael Mitchell's corrugated steel wall set (Robert Wierzel's shadowy lighting relieves the monochrome tint), the drama of a gentle black cleric, his wayward son and an accidental murder of a young white man unfolds. There are several potent stage pictures along the way, one involving little more than white linens on clothes lines.

Giving the production its central force is stellar bass-baritone Eric Owens as Stephen Kumalo, the parson whose world is upended when he makes the trek from his small town to Johannesburg. Owens uses his refulgent voice to telling effect, nowhere more so than in "Tixo, Tixo, Help Me," his plea to a seemingly absent God.

In "There's a Little Gray House," the reverend's nostalgic ballad about his home, Owens gets to the heart of the character.

The singer's acting succeeds at revealing a man at once naive and noble, timid and determined. Owens is especially impressive in the finale, when Stephen, torn by the reality that his son will soon be hanged, is visited by James Jarvis (an effective Wynn Harmon), father of the murder victim.

That Jarvis wants to share in the preacher's grief, and professes an unlikely conversion from racist to budding integrationist, may be the most implausible part of "Lost in the Stars," but Owens and Harmon somehow make it register.

There is sturdy acting, as well, from Everyman Theatre resident artist Dawn Ursula as Stephen's wife; Manu Kumasi as their hapless son Absalom; and Kevin McAllister as Stephen's super-cynical brother.

Among the opera singers in the large cast, Sean Panikkar stands out, using his warm, supple tenor to keen effect as The Leader, a figure deftly woven into the Greek chorus-style ensemble.

And soprano Lauren Michelle offers exquisite vocalism as Absalom's pregnant girlfriend Irina; her account of "Stay Well" is a peak of lyricism in the production.

Cheryl Freeman lacks the vocal heft to carry off the suggestive, jazzy number "Who'll Buy." It's one of the production's few musical disappointments.

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Back on the plus side, note the infectious energy and surefire delivery by Caleb McLaughlin, as Stephen's young nephew Alex, in "Big Black Mole," a mining song inserted as relief in the midst of all the bleakness in Act 2.

Weill's choral writing is one of the work's greatest strengths, and it can be fully savored here, especially in "Cry, the Beloved Country" and "A Bird of Passage" (which sounds like a subtle, intriguing nod to "O Little Town of Bethlehem").

John DeMain conducts Weill's eclectic score with authority and sensitivity, coaxing finely detailed playing from the chamber-sized orchestra.

Whatever its shortcomings as music or theater, "Lost in the Stars" still holds up, as this production reiterates. And it still has something important to say about race, justice, perception, expectation — issues that never seem to dim.

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