Happy End premièred in Berlin on September 2, 1929 and barely creased its costumes before closing after six performances, due, in part, to its scandalous revolutionary theme. Seventy-four years later it’s found new life at the Shaw Festival, affording all those who admire Kurt Weill’s infectious tunes and Bertolt Brecht’s Marxist utterings the opportunity to experience the happy result of this commendable production.
Set in 1919 Chicago (based on the book by the non-existent Dorothy Lane—ah, the intrigues of backrooms, bedrooms and leading ladies), the plot pits unscrupulous mobsters against the redemption-through-soup soldiers of the Salvation Army. The former burst into song-and-dance at the drop of a fedora, the latter decry sin and excess to the accompaniment of drums and a second trombone.
The star of the show is Weill’s tidy, saucy, sizzling score. Musical director Paul Sportelli conducts the original orchestration with verve and authority, but the eight instrumentalists too often overwhelm the stage, causing many of the lyrics to be seen but not heard. A much drier staccato would help considerably, as would a quicker-dampened cymbal.
Tadeusz Bradecki’s stage direction is another big plus. From the opening tableau, where the company silently invite us into their world, the too common barrier between cast and audience comes down as quickly and unexpectedly as the middle backdrop. With various characters setting the scene or making contemporary asides (“Happy End?—At Shaw?”) and details such as Baby Face’s ghostly visage (played with convincing naïveté by Jeff Lillico), the whole takes on the look and feel of a superhero comic book which works beautifully in the ensemble numbers, but drags in the more intimate scenes.
As leader of the criminal pack, Benedict Campbell’s portrayal of Bill Cracker comes across more like chairman of the board than ruthless dispatcher of adversaries of all stripes. He’d be perfect when the Enron musical comes out. His associates fare better. Guy Bannerman is entirely on as The Reverend, oozing fake charm and revelling in the near-tiresome organ jokes (with each hand filled with the non-facial cheeks of his female redeemers, he’s suddenly overwhelmed with “remorse”).
Every gang needs a professor and Bob Marker goes to the head of this class with an ever-engaging demeanour that lives for the laboratory—some of his creations even work!
The role of Dr. Nakamura (a.k.a. The Governor) shows off the vocal prowess of Jay Turvey, but his mid-Pacific Asian accent needs work. Most of the time it reminded me of the worst parts of the Sidney Toler Charlie Chan movies; the sprinkling of the more recent Jackie Chan yells and karate chops also needs a few more trips to the woodshed.
Neil Barclay shines brightly as Mammy, adding zest to all of his scenes, slinking about with oily shallowness in “The Mandalay Song” that opens Act III like a rocket. Surrounded by his cohorts (who deliver Jane Johanson’s deft choreography with aplomb but whose upper register could safely be described as the “Gang Who Couldn’t Sing Straight”) this showstopper is only marred by the checked pants peeking out of the Barclay’s mother-impersonator getup, although keeping the moustache is a hilarious touch.
That was soon followed by Lieutenant Lillian Holiday’s (Blythe Wilson) second big number “Surabaya Johnny.” Like its first-act counterpart (“The Sailor’s Tango”), Wilson makes the stage her personal domain, moving about with skill and grace. Vocally, she has a pleasant, pitch-accurate tone but as the volume and range increase, a near-yelling stridency appears that, if support replaced push, could vanish, letting the top soar to the rafters. It’s also in these songs where the staging dries up as, unless partnering for the dance, Bill is confined to a stand-and-stare posture that belies the flame that is beginning to burn between them.
The rest of her “troops” acquit themselves admirably, particularly Sister Mary (Trish Lindstrom) whose dulcet voice is the pride of the quartet. Kevin Dennis as Brother Ben Owens demonstrates his masters degree from the Dick Van Dyke School of Pratfalls much to the delight of the audience that never tires from chortling at the infirmities of others.
Glynis Ranney’s performance of The Fly is spot on as she flits about Peter Hartwell’s functional scrims and understated set, adding colour, insight and pizzazz.
After the company shed their uniforms, filled with the heady notion of “one cup of soup for every man,” we leave the theatre humming Weill’s stick-in-your-craw hits, while realizing that nothing has really changed since this marvellous show’s initial short-lived run. JWR