nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 29, 2007
Ever since I saw a scene from Happy End on the 1977 Tony Awards telecast, I have wanted to see this musical. It's almost never done: Theater Ten Ten deserves our supreme gratitude for bringing this rarity by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill back to the stage, in a production that's remarkably impressive by indie standards and that shows this piece off thoughtfully and with affection.
Happy End was Brecht and Weill's follow-up to their wildly popular Threepenny Opera; as so often happens in these cases, the successor is not as good as the original. But it's dazzlingly inventive, filled with amazing songs, and, surprisingly, a heckuva good time.
It takes place in 1919 in Chicago—not the real place, mind you, but a version of it that Brecht and his collaborator Elizabeth Hauptmann made up based on stories and gangster movies they'd seen (the co-authors used the name "Dorothy Lane" for the show's libretto credit). Here, we meet Bill Cracker and his gang of criminals, who have monikers like "Baby Face" and "The Professor"; they're a less dangerous bunch than Mack the Knife's crowd, with the exception of Dr. Nakamura ("The Governor"), a comic-book Japanese villain who pronounces Bill's last name "Clacker" and is generally menacing and inscrutable.
Into Bill's Beer Hall one night come members of the Salvation Army, led by Sister "Hallelujah" Lillian Holliday, bent on reforming these bad guys. They give up fairly quickly—all except Lillian, that is, who decides to stay alone with Bill for a one-on-one sermon. She has also fallen in love, and so (as he reluctantly realizes) has he.
Lillian's evening with the master criminal creates a giant scandal and it looks like she may be kicked out of the Salvation Army. Simultaneously, it appears that Bill is being double-crossed and that his life might be in danger. Will love and honor (however defined) somehow triumph?
The unexpected answer turns out to be a wholehearted yes; unexpected because, hey, it's a Brecht play, and the lovers we've been rooting for aren't supposed to matter in the end. But Happy End is, in fact, relatively lackadaisical on the political front: the authors seem more interested in satirizing (then-)contemporaneous pop culture than in making an impassioned plea for social justice and equality. Which is not to say that there's no message here; just that the frontal assault on the audience is relaxed if not entirely absent. Compare the content of the most popular songs in Threepenny and Happy End to see what I mean: the stark banality of evil in "Mack the Knife" versus the off-kilter nostalgia of "Bilbao Song"; "Pirate Jenny"'s amoral heroine avenging a lifetime of exploitation versus "Surabaya Johnny"'s singer mourning the lover who spurned her.
Which brings me to the songs which are, in so many ways, the raison d'etre of a revival of Happy End. I've already named the two most famous numbers; there's also a terrific piece delivered by Bill's gang, "The Mandalay Song," plus Lillian's raunchy ditty, "The Sailors' Tango," and several delicious hymns with titles like "Brother, Give Yourself a Shove" that one imagines Weill and Brecht had a hoot creating. It must be noted that the English adaptation is by Michael Feingold, who I think we can count on to deliver the essence of the original rather faithfully.
David Fuller's production is a mammoth undertaking for an off-off-Broadway theatre, with a cast of 15, many of whom double as members of the orchestra to augment Michael Harren's piano. Unlike John Doyle (Sweeney Todd, Company), Fuller uses his company judiciously and entirely without comment or gimmickry, so the music sounds good but we don't wonder why so-and-so has suddenly turned up with a trombone in his hand. Giles Hogya has designed a mostly abstract unit set that sketches out Bill's Beer Hall and other locales splendidly; Viviane Galloway's costumes are vividly character-defining and provide rich period detail. A film sequence in the third act, directed by Joey Piscopo, adds a fun multimedia element to the proceedings.
Speaking of Piscopo, he proves himself the consummate musical theatre leading man here, turning in an assured and likeable performance as Bill; his command of the stage is exceptional. His leading lady is that superlative Brecht/Weill interpreter Lorinda Lisitza, here playing a role for which she is ideal. Her Lillian is devout, unsentimental, hard as nails, and head-over-heels in love, all at the same time. She puts over all of her material brilliantly, especially "Surabaya Johnny," which she makes into an Act Three show-stopper.
Timothy McDonough (as "Baby Face") and Tim Morton (as "The Professor") are very funny and very effective as two of Bill's gang members. Theater Ten Ten regulars Judith Jarosz, David Tillistrand, Greg Horton, and Cristiane Young are also featured in the company, turning in the commendable performances that their fans have come to expect.
I wouldn't call Happy End a long-lost masterpiece, but it's a must-see for Brecht/Weill devotees and an intriguing, entertaining production in its own right. Theater Ten Ten once again proves itself indispensable to the NYC theatre scene for bringing this fascinating show to the stage.