Chuck Cooper and Sharon Washington in Lost in the Stars
(© Joan Marcus)
Chuck Cooper and Sharon Washington in Lost in the Stars
(© Joan Marcus)
Lost in the Stars, now being presented at City Center Encores!, is at best a workman-like musical adaptation of Alan Paton's novel, Cry, the Beloved Country. So it's perhaps no surprise that Gary Griffin's straightforward production rarely rises above the level of workman-like as well.

The show, which originally opened on Broadway in 1949 and played a respectable 281 performances, does boast a varied Kurt Weill-Maxwell Anderson score -- including a title tune that rivals Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern's "Ol' Man River" as the best song ever written for Broadway about man's difficult fate in an unresponsive cosmos.

The still-timely story unfolds in South Africa during the late 1940s, where humble village preacher Stephen Kumalo (Chuck Cooper) leaves his Ndotsheni home and wife Grace (Sharon Washington) for Johannesburg, where he hopes to find son Absalom (Daniel Breaker), from whom there's been no news for a worrying while.

Stephen finds Absalom, but only after his city-dwelling brother Matthew (Clifton Duncan) starts him on a circuitous chase that ends in a prison. There, Absalom is being held for allegedly killing Arthur Jarvis (Kieran Campion), son of typically bigoted rich Afrikaner James Jarvis (Daniel Gerroll) -- the gaping coincidence of the storyline being that the Jarvises and the Kumalos live in the same town and have a passing acquaintance. At his trial, Absalom admits to the murder, is found guilty, and his fate sets off a crisis of political beliefs for Stephen, whose faith is crushed, and James, who finally questions his convictions.

Because Anderson and Weill chose to do such heavy lifting with this somber tale, they obviously felt that heavy-weight music was required. As a result, they outfitted the score with several portentous choral anthems, fronted by a character identified only as Leader (Quentin Earl Darrington). The chorus' opening, during which lush and not-so-lush Ndotsheni is movingly described in "The Hills of Ixopo" is eventually followed by several rather didactic numbers -- and only in the touching late-in-show hymn "A Bird of Passage" does the unrelenting oratorio moralizing cease.

It's when the chorus is taking a breather and the other characters are expressing themselves individually that the more satisfying parts of the score unfurl. Cooper does well with "Thousands of Miles" but not as well as might be expected with "Lost in the Stars," which should have the spectators weeping in their seats but doesn't. Sherry Boone, playing Absalom's pregnant girlfriend Irina, does right by "Trouble Man" and "Stay Well," while Patina Miller lightens the solemn proceedings by shaking her bootie through an out-of-nowhere tune called "Who'll Buy?"

What's particularly striking about the musical underpinnings of Lost in the Stars, however, is that the scenes during which the sorts of larger-than-life emotions are expressed are the two where Stephen Kumalo and James Jarvis confront each other: one where James adamantly refuses to help Stephen save his son's doomed life and another where James is more repentant. These passages are where songs should flare, and yet they aren't supplied. It's one of the many lost opportunities in Lost in the Stars.