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Happy End

A.C.T's production of the Brecht-Weill musical is undeniably ambitious, but not entirely successful.

Charles Dean, Rod Knapp, and Linda Mugleston in Happy End
(Photo © Kevin Berne)
Bertolt Brecht never meant for his brand of theater to unfold seamlessly. The casts of his plays aren't supposed to exhibit a polished rapport. Action and transitions are intentionally jerky and haphazard, underscored by thematic elements intentionally positioned to work in opposition of one another. All those components come together in the American Conservatory Theater's production of Happy End, the musical comedy penned by Brecht and his longtime collaborator Kurt Weill. But whether that makes the show a success is questionable.

Moreover, while A.C.T artistic director Carey Perloff's incarnation is undeniably ambitious, with its fabulously designed stage, luscious costumes, and an on-stage, mezzanine-level band led by music director Constantine Kitsopoulos, the maddening zeal that it wishes to emanate remains elusive.

The opening number, the play's "Prologue," attempts to set the tone of the show, aiming to project the promise of a rollicking, zany evening of musical theater bursting with color and vibrancy; but it doesn't quite pop out of the cannon as it should. From that point forward, despite the bounty of fanciful accoutrements that decorate the production, the musical numbers remain maddeningly inconsistent. John Carrafa's choreography comes off as mechanical, lacking true spontaneity and zest. Worse, the singing is muddy at times. This makes an already indirect story line harder to follow, given that Happy End's lyrics often hold the meatiest part of the script.

Still riding the wild success of the The Threepenny Opera, Brecht and Weill reunited for Happy End. It's a variation of the classic, time-worn tale of the battle between good and evil, set in rough and tumble Chicago in 1919. (Ironically, neither collaborator had yet to set foot in the United States.) When the show debuted in Berlin in 1929, audiences hated it, booing and whistling throughout the entire third act. The critics weren't any kinder, panning the show in the newspapers and decrying it a debacle. Horrified, Brecht rejected the production altogether and forced his co-writer and faithful secretary Elisabeth Hauptmann to shoulder all responsibility for its existence. When Happy End was finally resurrected in 1958, Hauptmann saw to it that all credit for the musical went to the fictitious Dorothy Lane.

The show concerns a bumbling gang of criminals led by the enigmatic Lady in Grey, or The Fly (Linda Mugleston), and the similarly bumbling holy redeemers of the Salvation Army, led by the cantankerous Major Stone (Joan Harris-Gelb). These two groups face off when Stone's troops invade The Fly's headquarters at Bill's Beer Hall. Undeterred by the hardened lot she finds swilling liquor inside, the indefatigable and earnest Hallelujah Lil (Charlotte Cohn) leads her charges into the fire and nearly gets burned until Bill Cracker (Peter Macon), The Fly's second in command, comes to Lil's rescue.

The gang is then dispatched to criminal activity, and the Salvation Army troops return to their home base, while Lil and Bill belly up to the bar for a drunken heart-to-heart. Lil has found the next person she must next save and Bill has sprung a few fissures in his otherwise concrete heart, leaving the door open for a complete spiritual and professional transformation.

Brecht's writing prohibits any one character from stealing center stage, but Mugleston comes quite close to doing so. Her moments on the stage may be sparse, but they are indelibly impressive. Macon is beatific as Bill, the toughest criminal of the bunch; and Cohn proves to be the perfect foil to Macon in her role as his savior, the effervescent Hallelujah Lil.

Brecht's script may have endured harsh criticism, but Weill's musical score fetched much lauded acclaim, cementing in musical theater history such hits as "Surabaya Johnny" and "The Bilbao Song." That may be one reason why Happy End continues to tempt theater companies. So does the elusive promise that a winning formula exists for transforming this seemingly doomed play into an all-out success.


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