By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out”)
There is little doubt that Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht made a formidable team of composer and lyricist. Their two greatest triumphs – “The Three Penny Opera” and “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny” – sandwiched a work, “Happy End,” that was ripped critically not because of their songs or lyrics, but more to the failings of its book.
The two had teamed with Brecht’s close friend Elizabeth Hauptman, trying to recapture lightning in a bottle, following the runaway success of “The Three Penny Opera,” the most popular musical in Germany in the 1920s. Part of its success was that it was based on John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera,” a work that was well-known.
Hauptman, who wrote under the nom de plume of Dorothy Lane, tried to craft a book that would weave Weill’s music and Brecth’s lyrics into it, but she had such difficulty writing the manuscript that on opening night, it was reportedly still not finished.
There is a story that states one original cast member, who was bored or was trying to make a statement, read from The Communist Manifesto to the dismay of the audience and the German authorities, who learned of it later.
The show closed after only seven performances, but was revived in Munich and Berlin in 1956 and 1957, around the time that Brecht died at age 58, and on London’s West End in 1965. “Happy End” made it to Broadway for the first time in 1977, more than a quarter of a century after Weill had expired.
Following the success of his mounting of “The Three Penny Opera” at the Allways Theatre two years ago, director Dennis Monn opted to produce a run of “Happy End” with Harry Mayronne, reprising his role as musical director.
The musical has been running for the past week and is in many ways an immersive experience with audience members seated in what might be deemed Bill’s Beer Hall, the circa 1919 hangout for Chicago criminal Bill Cracker and his horde of thieves and murderers.
The music is played with great precision by Mayronne on piano along with a quintet of talented musicians – Lydia Stein, Cody Ruth, David Symons, Byron Asher and Dr. Sick – collectively known as the Salt Wives.
As Lillian Holiday, Pandora Gastelum, has the role that Hauptmann based in part on George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara.” This is the same character role Damon Runyon used in his “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown,” which came to be the basis for Frank Loesser’s musical “Guys and Dolls.”
In this case, Holiday is bounced by the Salvation Army when she becomes the alibi for the whereabouts of Cracker, played by Levy Easterly. In trying to save Cracker’s soul, she places herself in a highly compromising position by admitting she kept him company, while drinking liquor at his pub.
Nicole Gruter plays the intractable Major Stone, who takes a dim view of Holiday’s actions. After ejecting Holiday as unfit, she unwisely puts her faith and confidence in Sister Jane, played with brilliant comic timing by Renee Anderson.
Gastelum is more than able to meet the challenge of a woman torn between saving a soul for God and being attracted to Easterly’s “bad boy.”
The singing complements the music and highlights a company of players who don’t get to be seen on a regular basis in other productions. Gastelum’s 11th hour ballad “Surabaya Johnny” is sung with great skill and advances her character in such a way that she actually touches Cracker. Cracker and his henchmen enjoy hamming it up in Act I’s “The Bilbao Song,” a drinking anthem in which they relate their prowess as criminals.
Chris Wecklein is also quite good with his work as Governor, a power-seeking gang member, who runs afowl of Cracker.
The cast of bumbling criminals of gang leader Fly and gangsters Reverend, Sammy and Babyface, played by Elyse Manning, Dr. Sick, Ratty Scurvics and Owen Ever, respectively, gives audiences several comedic breaks between songs. Yet, the book does little to develop the secondary characters.
Greater care could also have been given to costuming, although it seems to be the sine qua non of many of Monn’s productions to cater to bohemian tastes that shun conventionality.
“Happy End” is seen nightly at 7:30 p.m. It finishes its run at the Allways Theatre, 2240 St. Claude Avenue on Saturday, December 19. For more information call 504-218-5778.