- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2009

NEW YORK | For musical theater buffs, flops always are more intriguing than hits — especially if their creators have impeccable credentials. They don’t get classier than Kurt “Threepenny Opera” Weill and Ira “Porgy and Bess” Gershwin.

These two giants managed to produce “The Firebrand of Florence,” a musical that’s pretty much unknown more than six decades after it expired quickly at Broadway’s Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon).

New York heard it again Thursday in a smashing concert version at the Lincoln Center’s newly refurbished Alice Tully Hall. Shorn of much of what apparently was a misguided book and its original stodgy staging, the Weill-Gershwin score glistened in a gloriously sung performance that vibrantly celebrated the vanished world of operetta, spiced up with a bit of more modern musical comedy sass.

When “The Firebrand of Florence” opened in March 1945, Broadway already was enthralled by a new team on the street: Rodgers and Hammerstein. “Oklahoma!” was just two years old, and “Carousel” was set to arrive less than a month later. Musical theater was moving past the Old World charms of Sigmund Romberg and Rudolf Friml and into a post-World War II flowering that would last until the advent of rock.

“The Firebrand of Florence” is a curious, if ambitious hybrid, musically a mixture of old-fashioned operetta and up-to-date musical theater. The concert version, featuring the Collegiate Chorale and the New York City Opera Orchestra, employed a cast drawn from both opera and musical theater.

It was headed by baritone Nathan Gunn, the opera world’s reigning hunk. Mr. Gunn was the perfect choice to play the narcissistic, womanizing sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, the toast of Renaissance Florence. The singer has a big, booming voice and an outsized personality. He and soprano Anna Christy, as Cellini’s paramour and muse, meltingly worked their way through two of Weill’s more unusual duets, “You’re Far Too Near Me” and the haunting “Love Is My Enemy.”

The composer peppered the score with extensive chorale work for the townspeople of Florence, who comment on Cellini’s antics and his attempts to evade the hangman while finishing a sculpture for the Duke of Florence (played by Terrence Mann).

The Duke is the musical’s comic relief, and Mr. Mann, known for more ominous roles in such musicals as “Les Miserables” and “Beauty and the Beast,” exuded a surprising goofy, likable charm. He also got to sing some of Mr. Gershwin’s more inviting lyrics in “A Rhyme for Angela” (a name that is not easy to put in song).

Perhaps the show’s best-known number, “Sing Me Not a Ballad,” was reserved for the Duke’s world-wise and deliberately anti-romantic Duchess, portrayed by Victoria Clark. She brought a sheen of witty, present-day sophistication to the proceedings.

The musical’s truncated story line was narrated by Roger Rees, who also directed the evening. Mr. Rees sat on the side of the stage. He ably filled in the gaps in the story, which confusingly unraveled as the evening went on.

Not so the music and lyrics. The Weill-Gershwin score remains a remarkable achievement.

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