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A CurtainUp Review
Happy End, A Melodrama With Songs
By Elyse Sommer
When it was first performed in Berlin in 1929 Happy End lasted just seven performances and caused Brecht and Elizabeth Hauptman (his mistress) to relinquish their authorship for the pseudonymous Dorothy Lane. A 1977 Broadway production with Michael Feingold's excellent colloquial translation of the lyrics fared somewhat better, nabbing a number Tony and Drama Desk nominations (the latter including one for pre-superstar Meryl Streep's performance as Hallelujah Lil).
Despite critical hosannahs, Happy End failed to catch on with the public and lasted just seventy-two performances. Yet the pull of the powerful songs has prompted sporadic regional productions, most apropriately small. The latest of these is currently at the Park Avenue church venue that Theater Ten Ten calls home. With a new musical, Love Musik about Kurt Weill (played by Michael Ceveris) and Lotte Lenya (played by Donna Murphy) opening later this week on Broadway, the return of this poor cousin follow-up to Three Penny Opera is not only welcome but timely — a chance for fans of best known and most frequently recorded Happy End song "Surabaya, Johnny" to hear it performed by Broadway star Murphy and Weill specialist Lorinda Lisitza.
Lisitza is a prime asset of the Theater Ten Ten production. She's an attractive performer who brings passion and charm to the high principled Salvation army Lieutenant Lillian Holiday, a.k.a. Hallelujah Lil. Whether singing solo, as in her fast tempo "Sailor's Song" and the famous "Surabaya, Johnny," or as part of the more than a dozen strong cast, her singing is superb, without any need for amplification.
The cast overall is competent. However, while there are several standouts like Judith Jarosz as the Lady in Gray ( a.k.a. The Fly) and Timothy McDonough as Johnny Flint (a.k.a. Baby Face), this is Lisitza's show both in terms of acting and singing.
A shout-out is in order for David Fuller who has managed to stage the mishmash of Shaw's Major Barbara and the Damon Runyon inspired Guys and Dolls with considerable ingenuity and the resourcefulness needed to fit the producing company's modest venue and budget.
That plot, in case you're not familiar with it, plays out in Chicago, circa 1919. It pits a band from a Salvation Army mission against a group of gangsters (a segment of the population that fascinated Brecht) headquartered in Bill Cracker's Beer Hall. If you've ever seen Major Barbara, you'll see the romance between Cracker (Joey Piscopo) and the passionate young Lieutenant Holiday coming a mile off. Before the romance paves the way for the title ending that has the saints and sinners join forces against the evils of Capitalism there's a keystone cops bank robbery (cleverly filmed and projected on a quickly mounted home movie type screen), a power struggle for the gang's leadership and Lil's exile from the Army.
Giles Hogya's set for Cracker's beer hall would undoubtedly be more effective without the production's budgetary constraints, which is also true for his lighting, Fuller's use of the aisles and front of the proscenium for the Missionaries works well. Unlike John Doyle, the director of the much publicized actor-musician productions of Company and Sweeney Todd, Fuller limits this concept to actors with minor roles whose instruments fit in with their being part of the Salvation Army marching band. Their instruments nicely augment Michael Harren's excellent piano accompaniment.
While the program doesn't list the songs (perhaps to underscore its play with song genre), it's the songs that are most likely to make anyone who goes happy to have bought a ticket. Besides the already mentioned "Sailor's Tango" and "Surabaya Johnny", there's the rousing "Lieutenants of the Lord" and the delightful "Song of the Big Shot.". For truly stick-to-the-ears hummability, there's "The Bilbao Song" which my husband who's not usually a song hummer, "reprised" all the way home and at breakfast.
While Lotte Lenya, Weill's wife, recorded it twice in German, Happy End, didn't get an English recording until last year when Gostlight recorded the 2006 A.C.T. San Francisco revival which features in that production's order: Lieutenants Of The Lord March Ahead, Time In A Shot Glass, The Sailor's Tango, Entr'Acte, The Sailor's Tango, (Reprise), Brother, Give Yourself A Shove, Song Of The Big Shot, Don't Be Afraid, In Our Childhood's Bright Endeavor, The Liquor Dealer's Dream, The Mandalay Song, Goddam It, Surabaya Johnny Song Of The Big Shot (Reprise), In Our Childhood's Bright Endeavor, Epilogue, The Bilbao Song. It can be bought and some of the songs sampled here
For a review of Weill and Brecht's The Rise and Fall of the city of Mahoganny when it played in Los Angeles Go Here
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide