Greta Matassa
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Matassa hits the mark in Kurt Weill songfest

by Misha Berson, Seattle Times

Born in Dessau, Germany in 1900, Kurt Weill had the classical training, innate musicianship and creative talent to become an important composer of symphonic works and operas.

Weill wrote some compositions aimed at the opera house and concert hall. But it was hooking up with a radical playwright named Bertolt Brecht that propelled him into another arena: musical theater. And after the Nazis made life in Berlin untenable for Jews like Weill, his career took two other big swerves: first to the commercial realm of Broadway, then to Hollywood.

Many of Weill’s theater songs are now superior standards, and you can’t blame Seattle singer Greta Matassa for wanting to interpret them. In her Cabaret de Paris show “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” she gives thoughtful renditions of 18 items from the Weill songbook.

Unlike another revue seen locally, “Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill,” Matassa and director David Koch sidestepped the usual biographical-chronological approach, and organized the tunes thematically, in relation to love’s phases. That format is too loose to fit well, so “I’m a Stranger Here Myself" feels simply like a Weill songfest.

But Matassa, a gracious and energized performer, is in strong voice. And most of her interpretations of the composer’s brooding melodies and eloquent words (penned by Weill’s various A-list lyricists) are spot-on.

With lively backup piano by Joe Baque, and less-lively accordion embellishments from Ken Olendorf, Matassa does special justice to Weill’s rueful, worldly story-songs, which are playlets in themselves.

The rough love portrayed in “Barbara Song,” “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” and “Tango Ballad” from Brecht-Weill’s masterwork, “The Threepenny Opera,” is about as far as you can get from Rodgers and Hammerstein wholesomeness.

Matassa never flinches from Brecht’s hard-bitten view of romance as, basically, exploitation and betrayal. Nor does she ignore the erotic irony snaking through both the lyrics and Weill’s woozy melodies, a brilliant compound of jazz, German modernism and Viennese opera.

She also digs into the melancholy textures of “Lonely House,” a midnight ballad with words by poet Langston Hughes, from the Broadway musical “Street Scene.” And she puts winking oomph into “The Saga of Jenny” (from “Lady in the Dark”), a risqué Ira Gershwin ode to the perils and pleasures of fickleness.

Matassa phrases deftly and swings gently without muddying the songs’ melodic and rhythmic infrastructure. Her voice can remind you of Judy Garland’s, with its vibrato and corner drawls—though sometimes (as on an otherwise lovely “My Ship”) that vibrato can over-do. She also has the lung power to warrant less amplification than she gets.

Though Weill’s music is well-known to many musical theater and jazz fans, “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” is less light and spoofy fare than Cabaret de Paris usually serves.
On a recent night, a table of women giggle, chatted and rustled programs during the Brecht numbers—except for the golden oldie, “Mack the Knife.” So take note: this is a revue for committed listeners. Diners who’d prefer Muzak with dinner might head elsewhere.


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