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Happy End; Big River




Court Theatre


Marriott's Lincolnshire Theatre

One of the most valuable functions that a nonprofit, institutionally based theater can perform is the revival and reinvestigation of neglected, historically interesting works. The Court Theatre's staging of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's 1929 musical Happy End, produced in conjunction with the University of Chicago's New Music Ensemble, is just such a venture. But sometimes a neglected work is neglected for good reason: in the case of Happy End, the reason is an almost arrogantly slipshod script.

From the beginning, Happy End was a problem show. Brecht and Weill embarked on it as a follow-up to their enormously successful The Threepenny Opera of 1928. Like Threepenny, Happy End was to be a witty amalgam of sex, violence, and socially conscious sarcasm. But during the writing period, Brecht came under other, sometimes conflicting influences. For one thing, he married his lover, the actress Helene Weigel, and hurriedly rewrote the script to give her a juicier role, reassigning to her lines originally written for the hero. (As a result, the actor playing the hero walked out during rehearsals and had to be replaced.) More seriously, Brecht was moving into the most passionate--and most dogmatic--phase of his involvement with communism, and he was working on other, more ideological projects at the same time as he was supposed to be concocting the commercial Happy End. The result was a tempestuous and difficult production process--during one rehearsal, an actor screamed at Brecht "You were supposed to write a play, not come here and shit on the stage!"--and finally, a work that satisfied neither audiences nor critics nor the author himself. Brecht sought to disown the work by officially attributing it to one "Dorothy Lane"; unofficially, Brecht said the script was adapted by his longtime collaborator, Elisabeth Hauptmann, from a short story by American writer Dorothy Lane that had appeared in the American magazine J and L Weekly. The whole thing was a hoax--there's no evidence that Lane, her story, or the magazine ever existed--but Hauptmann was willing to take the rap; only after Brecht's death did she acknowledge that she didn't write Happy End. Brecht did take credit for the lyrics, but only at the insistence of the composer, Kurt Weill; the show's best lyrics had in fact been written and even performed several years before Happy End hit the boards for its short, ill-fated run.

In a sense, Elisabeth Hauptmann did deserve credit for coauthorship. She stepped in to try to fix some problems when Brecht's other activities interfered, and she did the lion's share of the research for this play, intended to be an indictment of the relationship between business and religion. Brecht's contempt for the church was well known; here his target was the Salvation Army, which celebrated its 100th anniversary the year Happy End was written. It was Brecht and Hauptmann's observation (later expressed more forcefully in the play Saint Joan of the Stockyards) that while professing allegiance to God, the Salvation Army was in fact a collaborator with big business in perpetuating the plight of the poor: by offering meager nourishment and religious homilies to the needy, the Salvation Army was deterring the development of political awareness among them; thus the financial support the Salvation Army received from corporate charities was no accident.

It was with this point of view that Brecht went to work on Happy End, the story of a Salvation Army lieutenant who falls in love and in league with a vicious gangster (organized crime being, here as in The Threepenny Opera, a sardonic substitute for the businessmen and politicians whom Brecht saw as the real enemies of society). But torn by personal pressures and ideological doubts, he failed to produce a script that even began to live up to this provocative theme. Happy End starts out well enough, with a chorus of saints and sinners, mobsters and missionaries, singing a hosanna to the kings of commerce--the Fords and the Rockefellers, "the buyers and the sellers." But all too quickly, the action degenerates into a silly, superficial portrait of cute crooks and repressed religionists. With its uneven mix of melodrama and farce, and a dollop of flaccid sex jokes thrown in for bad measure (one crook is named Wurlitzer, which opens the door for a stream of stupid organ jokes), the script also loses touch with the theme of redemption implicit in its love story, as "Hallelujah Lil" and Bill Cracker turn their backs on their equally immoral professions--religion and crime--to join forces against "the big gang that keeps the safes locked."

Worst of all is the play's climax, with its sudden burst of Marxist propaganda that bears so little relation to the rest of the play that it seems like a student spoof of Brecht rather than the real thing. "Robbing a bank is no crime compared to owning one," declares the Fly, the mysterious crime queen whose efforts to rub out Bill fuel the script's messy subplot. It's a wryly funny line, and the comfortable Court Theatre audience laughs indulgently; but it has no basis in what has led up to it, and so no bite.

What does have bite in Happy End is the score--though here, again, the songs have virtually nothing to do with the script. The best songs aren't even set in the exaggerated, shoot-'em-up Chicago that Brecht chose as the locale for the play; they are sailors' songs, filled with references to shipwrecks and seductions in southeast Asia. Brecht was fascinated by the exotic east, and by the writing of Rudyard Kipling, poet of the British colonial experience. Happy End's best song, "Surabaya Johnny"--surely one of the greatest love songs in musical theater--is in fact an adaptation of a Kipling poem. A desperately sad yet ironically distanced ballad about a girl hung up on a ne'er-do-well sailor, the song is used here by Lil to express her emotional confusion, torn as she is between her religious devotion and her desire for Bill.

There are other fine songs in the score, too; those who think of the Brecht-Weill collaboration mainly in terms of "Mack the Knife" will find unexpected gems in Weill's pungent harmonies, deliciously oily chromatic melodies and abrasively brilliant orchestrations.

The unevenness in quality between the script and the songs is unfortunately mirrored in Court Theatre's production. The score is capably played by a center-stage band conducted crisply by Barbara Schubert; and the singing is generally strong, certainly in the choral numbers that open and close the show. (An old show-business maxim says that a strong first and last impression will overcome a great deal of bad work in between, and that's certainly true here.)

But dramatically, Happy End is a major disappointment. Linda Brovsky's direction has a museumlike quality, a studied seriousness that is all too common on the regional opera circuit, where she has built her reputation; occasionally she tries to goose the energy with a hyperactively staged song, but the result is just cluttered movement that further obscures the already hard-to-understand lyrics (for which blame the acoustics, some of the singers' diction, and Michael Feingold's frequently mushy English adaptation).

As for the acting, it's mostly devoid of any individual personality or commitment to the material. One isn't supposed to believe in the characters in a Brecht play--that, in Brecht's view, would interfere with understanding the issues--but one must believe in the actors themselves, in their belief in the lesson the play teaches. The half-baked script is largely to blame here, but more astute direction could have solved some of the problem. Ann Arvia, who plays Lil, is a beautiful singer but not much of an actor; like many opera singers trying to be dramatically powerful, she delivers her big "Surabaya Johnny" number with a determined intensity that has no real guts behind it. Shannon Cochran, who on past occasions has proved she can act as well as sing, might have made a much better Lil; as the Fly, the role Brecht hastily added for his wife, she is outfitted with a bad Lotte Lenya accent and pseudosalacious movement that is just ridiculous. David Nisbet, as the converted killer Bill Cracker, garbles many of his lines in a misguided effort to sound tough and gritty; Larry Russo, in the role of an Oriental mob leader originally played by Peter Lorre under Brecht's direction, poses prettily but is dead as a doornail on the inside.

Only Marilynn Bogetich, as the prim Salvation Army major who runs Lil put of the fold, comes off reasonably well among the leads. As for the ensemble--playing gangsters, cops, missionaries, and other lowlifes--they have no sense of danger or despair. Even in a misguided effort like Happy End, Brecht's company of actors could communicate a sense of artistic and political principle and purpose. The cast of Happy End at Court, apparently helped by neither the playwright nor the director, seem mainly concerned with getting their lines out and being at the right place at the right time.

Part of the problem with Happy End--a problem Brecht grappled with throughout his career, and the problem that made him mistrust the popular success of The Threepenny Opera--is how to deliver a political message in an essentially bourgeois medium such as musical theater. Interestingly, a better solution is found at the north-suburban Marriott's Lincolnshire Theatre, currently presenting the William Hauptman-Roger Miller show Big River.

The answer is people. Brecht might not have agreed, but theater is essentially about people--just as political messages are only as strong as their relevance to people. In Big River, the musical-comedy adaptation of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one gentle shrug of confusion as Huck Finn grapples with his "guilt" over helping a slave escape contains more meaning than three acts of Happy End; one Christian woman's expression of outrage at the abolitionist movement tells a story of religious hypocrisy that Brecht's whole army of "soldiers of God" couldn't convey. And the unsettled voice of the woman behind me whispering to her companion, "This is musical comedy?" as she watched a black woman weep at being separated from her sister registered more understanding than the tepid, indulgent laughter of the Happy End audience in response to Brecht's slapped-on sloganeering.

The strength of Hauptman's storytheater script--its emphasis on human beings--is enhanced in this production by the stripped-down, in-the-round staging by David H. Bell. On Broadway and in the national touring version that came to Arie Crown Theatre a few seasons back, Big River was a show about scenery--the panoramic background painting of the winding Mississippi River that serves as the story's metaphor for Huck's journey to self-awareness. But this lean and likable production dispenses with such elaborate trappings and concentrates on the actors. As a result, Twain's story--with its ironic look at social and religious pieties, its evocation of the horrors of slavery, and its poignant depiction of the hard-won friendship between the illiterate white-trash boy Huck and the runaway slave Jim--emerges clearly and convincingly.

William Akey, a supporting-cast stalwart of previous Marriott productions, is wonderfully natural as Huck; Michael Lofton is a sweet-spirited, operatic-voiced Jim. Skipp Sudduth, looking like a Lynyrd Skynyrd leftover as Huck's ornery Pap, offers a sad and scary portrait of the ravages of alcohol and ignorance. Susan Moniz and Mary Ernster, two of the best musical-theater actresses in town, add immensely to the show in their brief but telling roles as the unwanted but irresistible women in Huck's young life. And though it didn't produce any lasting hits, Roger Miller's warmhearted and conversational country-gospel score is worth another listen.

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