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Out of 17 distinctive songs by Kurt Weill, American Opera Theater artistic director Timothy Nelson has fashioned an engrossing, even edgy, piece called "Songspiel," getting its premiere at the Theatre Project.

The show is first and foremost a vehicle for stellar soprano Sylvia McNair, but it's far from a cabaret act.

The music comes from such stage works as "Happy End," "Mahagonny" and "Lost in the Stars." Nelson also mined several of Weill's potent stand-alone songs.

The concept for "Songspiel" involves a narrative about a woman battered by life and nature - the latter quite literally, with references to Hurricane Katrina. (The song "Complaint de la Seine," with its description of bodies and discarded things at the bottom of an iconic French river, easily fits memories of the horror in New Orleans.)

The homeless woman, identified as Jenny I, has a history of bruising love affairs, drug abuse and prostitution. Woven into this dark world are the young, volatile characters of Jenny II and Johnny.

If "Songspiel" doesn't always persuade, the result is nonetheless a solid evening of music theater, directed imaginatively by Nelson.

McNair is riveting. She commands attention from the start, wearing the rummaged-for clothes of a street person, shuffling onto Charles Nelson's artfully trash-littered set. The soprano's voice is in superb shape, the tone pure and beautiful, the diction crystalline, the phrasing full of nuance.

Rebecca Duren (Jenny II) may not always produce a tightly focused sound or articulate words carefully, but she is capable of considerable expressive flair. Todd Wieczorek (Johnny) uses his mostly smooth baritone tellingly; his high, soft singing creates an especially haunting effect.

A three-instrument ensemble provides firm, stylish support for the show.

"Songspiel" has something substantive to say about all of us, particularly those troubled souls we would rather not notice. I imagine Weill would have approved.

If you go

"Songspiel" will be performed at 8 p.m. today and Saturday at Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. $30 to $60. 410-752-8558,

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