Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

When the Shark Bites: Hauptmann & Brecht, Lenya & Weill
Chronofon / Open Eye Figure Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of Floyd's


Dan Chouinard, Diana Grasselli, Prudence Johnson
and Bradley Greenwald

Photo by Bruce Silcox
Chronofon, the ensemble comprising vocalists Bradley Greenwald, Diana Grasselli, Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard (who also plays keyboards and does the group's musical arrangements), is back at the Open Eye Figure Theatre with their latest show, When the Shark Bites: Hauptmann & Brecht, Lenya & Weill. If you recognize the show's title as a phrase from the song "Mack the Knife," you will understand that this musical revue, embellished with history, draws on the work of playwright/poet Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weil.

The two, whose brief but extravagantly fertile collaboration spanned the years 1927-1933, created some of the most vaunted and enduring portals into the state of culture, society and politics during the German Weimer Republic leading up to the rise of Nazism, Hitler, and the Third Reich. Their first joint work was Mahagonny Songspiel (1927), followed by a huge success with The Threepenny Opera (1928). Next came Happy End (1928), then the fully realized Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) (1930) and Der Jasager (The Yes-sayer) (1930), all of which provide material for When the Shark Bites. Their final collaboration was a ballet with text, The Seven Deadly Sins, that premiered in Paris in 1933.

To broaden the scope of When the Shark Bites, Chronofon includes anecdotes about two of Brecht and Weil's most important collaborators: writer Elisabeth Hauptmann and singer/actor Lotte Lenya. Hauptmann served Brecht for years variously as secretary, translator (from English to German), credited librettist of Happy End, uncredited ghostwriter for much of his other work, and lover. In Berlin, Lenya became a star in The Threepenny Opera, also performed in The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, and was Weil's wife, twice—married in 1926, divorced in 1933 and remarried in 1937—in a famously tempestuous relationship.

After Brecht's death in 1956, Hauptmann continued her devotion to his work until her own death in 1973. She oversaw publication of his work in Germany and served as a dramaturg at the Berliner Ensemble, founded as a venue to perform his plays by Brecht and his wife, actress Helen Weigel, after they returned from refuge from the Nazis (in Los Angeles) to East Berlin in 1949. Weil and Lenya sought refuge from the Nazis in Paris and then settled in New York, where he died in 1950. In 1956, Lenya won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for the smash Off-Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera, and in 1962 she founded the Kurt Weil Foundation for Music to protect his legacy and promote understanding of his work. Clearly, Hauptmann and Lenya had integral roles in the creative work and legacy of Brecht and Weil as well as brandishing their own creative irons.

The Brecht-Weil collaboration faltered over differing views of how overtly political to make their work. Weil was inclined to socialism, but did not share the communist-leaning Brecht's desire for their shows to move ever further politically left. After Weil's death, Lenya recalled his statement that "he was unable to set the Communist Manifesto to music."

Chronofon's past forays into this genre include 66: Talkin' Bout My Generation, showcasing music from the year 1966 in the context of forces of cultural change, and last year's Dear Lenny, shining light on the genius of Leonard Bernstein through both music and letters written both to and from his many colleagues in the arts, as well as family members. When the Shark Bites similarly takes a deep dive into the cauldron in which Brecht, Weil, Hauptmann and Lenya worked. In between—and sometimes interspersed with—musical performances are snippets from letters, memos, and other documents written by them and their associates, critical responses to their work, and mention of key historical events taking shape around them, including the rise of the Nazis and engulfing anti-Semitism. This wealth of background and insight has been well researched and compiled by Bradley Greenwald and identified with simple but effective projections above the stage.

In this world premiere production, the musical performances are ravishing. With Grasselli, Greenwald and Johnson we are talking about three superb vocalists who not only sing with beautifully lush voices, but create a whole character in every song. Chouinard is less gifted as a vocalist, but makes up for it with his vibrant keyboard playing, which takes playful liberties by adding his own flavor to the distinctive Kurt Weil compositions. It must be said that, like the narratives enfolded in their plays, Weil's music can have a jagged edge and often strikes unexpected chords, but always in ways that add to its emotional and intellectual heft. The jazz-infused violin by Carolyn Boulay, and Tim Sparks' sprightly banjo and guitar add to the spare but deeply satisfying performances.

And, ah, the songs! They range from mournful to buoyant, cynical to naöve—and every one a gem. The show opens with The Threepenny Opera's "Mack the Knife"—so different in its context from the jazz, up-tempo readings we know from the likes of Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin—soon followed by "Alabama Song" (sometimes called "Whiskey Song") from Mahagonny (Songspiel), one of Brecht and Weil's better-known tunes, thanks in part to versions by both The Doors and David Bowie, setting a tone of needful yearning. Grasselli creates a full-blown saga out of "Pirate Jenny" from The Threepenny Opera, also well known by way of Judy Collins and Nina Simone treatments, while from the same show, Greenwald and Johnson make a bawdy romance out of "Tango Ballad."

In other highlights from Happy End, which was not staged in New York until 1977, with a production starring an unknown Meryl Streep, Johnson gives a devastating performance of "Surabaya Johnny," fighting to keep her hopeless love from eroding her defenses, while Greenwald delivers a sly, cynically vaudevillian "Bilbao." From The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Johnson offers hard-learned advice in "As You Make Your Bed." A scene from Der Jasager (The Yes-sayer) is enacted, giving ferocious meaning to its simple premise. When the Shark Bites ends in the most unlikely of ways, given the tone of grit, grime and heartache that has accompanied much of Weil and Brecht's catalog, but it works perfectly in the hands of Chronofon's masterful quartet.

If you are an aficionado of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil, you will absolutely want to see When the Shark Bites. If you are not familiar with their work, but appreciate thoughtful musical theater work with a sharp edge, I urge you to test their shark-infested waters. And if you are a student of the historical context in which art is able to blossom, or in which it may be squashed, this show is for you. Finally, if your idea of a great time is listening to rare songs song by wonderfully talented singers giving searing performances, don't miss out.

Chronofon and Open Eye Figure Theatre's When the Shark Bites: Hauptmann & Brecht, Lenya & Weill, through August 18, 2019, at 506 E. 24th St., Minneapolis MN. General admission tickets are $28 each. For tickets and information, visit www.openeyetheatre.org or call 612-874-6338.

Conceived by: Dan Chouinard, Diana Grasselli, Bradley Greenwald and Prudence Johnson; Historical Text Compiled and Arranged by: Bradley Greenwald; Orchestrations: Dan Chouinard; Lighting Design: Alex Clark; Sound Design: Sean Healey; Projections: Bradley Greenwald; Producer for Chronofon: Diana Grasselli; Producer for Open Eye Figure Theatre: Joel Sass.

Cast: Carolyn Boulay (violin), Dan Chouinard (vocals and piano), Diana Grasselli (vocals), Bradley Greenwald (vocals), Prudence Johnson (vocals), Tim Sparks (banjo and guitar).


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