An Exalted Production of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's Happy End
When people think of the great composers of the 1920s and '30s they usually name the big three, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern, but I rank the genius Kurt Weill along with those great creators of musical theatre. I have always been fascinated by Weill's melodies with their haunting quality. His work from the early Berlin period to the later Broadway musicals is a wonderful study of contrast in the music field.
I have been always a particular aficionado of Weill's German period, during which he wrote The Three Penny Opera, Happy End, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and Johnnie Johnson. The Happy End score, with its complex melodies of jazz and impressionistic music, is a pleasure to the ear. The sensuousness of some of the romantic songs is reminiscent of the days before the Nazi rise to power in Germany. No other composer could have written such a sound.
Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's The Three Penny Opera premiered in 1928 Berlin where it became an immediate hit. Weill, who had a fascination with Chicago gangsters, talked Brecht into working on their next venture, Happy End. It opened at the Theatre Am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin on September 2, 1929. Politically, things had changed drastically during that short period, with the National Socialist party starting to rise to power. The German audience did not like Brecht's scandalous revolutionary Marxist theme and the production ran only six performances. After the production, Brecht distanced himself from Weill and disowned the play. Elizabeth Hauptmann, who we believe did most of the book, also disowned the play. In fact, when it played in America, they used a fictitious name (Dorothy Lane) for the bookwriter.
Kurt Weill tried one more time to present his third opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny in the Berlin theatre. However, the opening night performance could not be completed due to Nazi party violence at the theatre. The show closed immediately. Since Kurt Weill was Jewish, he thought it best to leave the country and came to America, which he loved. His wife Lotte Lenya championed his music in this county, singing the intriguing songs. Several of the "gangster musical" songs have become standards for cabaret artists like Ute Lemper, Julie Wilson and Teresa Stratas.
I first saw this operetta at the Martin Beck Theatre during the spring of 1977 with a very young Meryl Streep playing the Salvation Army lieutenant Lillian Holiday. Christopher Lloyd played the Chicago gangster Bill Cracker. I was blown away by the production, and songs such as "The Bilbao Song," "The Sailors' Tango" and "Surabaya Johnny" have become favorites of mine.
Director Carey Perloff has mounted a brilliant production with top rate actors and singers and a magnificent metal set by Walt Spangler. There is a certain Guys and Dolls feel about this production, since it is a lighter production than the Broadway version I saw so many years ago. This is more musically alluring. This production is an adaptation of the original Michael Feingold translation, which premiered locally at Berkeley Rep in 1982. Both Feingold and Perloff have further revised the text and have added an artificial song to the production by combining Weill's music with a Brecht poem called "Ballad of the Pirates." It is the weakest part of this superb production and seems to slow down the progress of the play.
Happy End is set in 1919 Chicago and the plot pits unprincipled mobsters against the redemption soup soldiers of the Salvation Army. There is the peculiar romance of chivalrous thug Bill Cracker (Peter Macon) and spiritually passionate Lt. Lillian Holiday (Charlotte Cohn). The plot contains the intrigues of the gangsters' big job of robbing a bank and the in-fighting of the group over who will be the leader of the gang. The drama shows the evils of capitalism according to Brecht and how a group of criminals and Salvation Army saints overthrow the system. Much of the plot is a cross between Guys and Dolls and Major Barbara. All of the gang is very "Runyonesque" and they are all amazing in their colorful roles.
Peter Macon (New York debut in Drowning Crow plus many regional plays) plays courtly gangster Bill Cracker. Macon is compelling in the role, with a smooth voice when singing "The Bilbao Song" and "Song of the Big Shot." Charlotte Cohn (Musetta in Baz Luhrmann's La Boheme plus many Off-Broadway productions) is crowd pleasing as the romantic Lieutenant. She has a golden voice singing "The Sailors' Tango" and "Surabaya Johnny." However, her rendition is entirely different from the wonderful guttural voices of Ute Lemper or Lotte Lenya. She sings the songs with a smooth operatic voice.
Outstanding is Linda Mugleston (recently in Wonderful Town in New York) as "The Fly," or A Lady in Grey. She is superb in her powerhouse rendition of "The Ballad of the Lily of Hell." Her vibrato brings down the house in the third act. Sab Shimono (original casts of Mame and Pacific Overtures, plus recent PO revival) gives a cunning and scheming performance as the man who wants to overthrow Bill Cracker, Dr. Nakamura "The Governor" (Peter Lorre originated this role in the Berlin production). Shimono has a voice that is more akin to actual sound of Weill's melodies of the '20s.
Director Carey Perloff has assembled some of the best actors to play the colorful gangsters. Jack Willis (Cat on the Hot Tin Roof and The Black Rider) as Sam "Mammy" Wurlitzer is buoyant with his gravel voice. Charles Dean (many roles in local regional theatre), as the devious and razor sharp Jimmy Dexter "The Reverend," plays the role to the hilt. Ron Gnapp (also appeared in many local regional productions) gives a good account of himself when playing the scrupulously driven Bob Marker "The Professor." Justin Leath (member of the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program class of 2007) is first class as Johnny Flint "Baby Face." He is especially hilarious in the third act dressed as a chubby little boy like something straight out of a burlesques skit. Celia Shuman as Miriam the barmaid is efficient in a relatively small role.
Rene Augesen (ACT core member) is delightful as Sister Mary in the Salvation Army. She gives a laughably messed up sermon in the second act that involves comparing radio waves to the existence of God. Her assistant, Sister Jane, is played beautifully by Lianne Marie Dobbs (many local regional productions). She is enticing in the mock hymn "Don't Be Afraid." Her frightened singing as Bill Cracker ascends some steps is precious. Steven Anthony Jones (ACT core member) with his misty voice is very good as Captain Hannibal Jackson. Dan Hiatt (many local regional productions) gives a first rate comic performance as he takes on two roles: a perturbed cop and a passionate blind worshiper. Joan Harris-Gelb (Time of Your Life, A Doll's House and Blithe Spirit) is very good as the uptight Major Stone. The rest of the ensemble (Jackson Davis, Drew Hirshfield, Wendy James, Stephanie Saunders, Colin Thompson and Jud Williford) offer great voices in the super choral work of the operetta.
Choreographer John Carrafa has devised some amazing dance pieces for this cast. The opening scene with the whole cast doing a '20s type of tango is exciting. There is the comically deadly choreography of "Song of the Big Shot" that is deviously done. The hoarsely funny "Mandalay Song" is a high point of energy in this "Melodrama with Songs."
Walt Spangler's set is amazing. There is a rickety set of fragile looking metal towers, beams, a metal bridge and a showy moon that is vibrantly lit in glowing neon by Robert Wierzel. The eight-piece orchestra under the direction of Constantine Kitsopoulos is situated on the second tier and they have Weill's musical inflection of jazz and Germanic music down pat. Carey Perloff has staged a full of life production that is both challenging and entertaining.
Happy End has been extended through July 16 at the American Conservatory Theatre, Geary Theatre, 45 Geary St, San Francisco. For tickets please call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.
American Conservatory Theatre will open its 2006-2007 season with Tom Stoppard's Travesties on September 14th and running through October 15th.