Written in 1929, German playwright Bertolt Brecht and his musical ally Kurt Weill translated their fascination with Hollywood gangster movies into this tuneful exploration of a fateful relationship between a Chicago gangster and a Salvation Army missionary. Director Randee Trabitz literally surrounds and bombards the audience with a spectacle of sight and sound, including silent movie clips that are framed like paintings on the wall, overhead projections, puppetry, shadow plays, moving sets that fill the expansive MOCA performing area from floor to ceiling-level scaffolding and filmed cameos, featuring such personalities as John Fleck, Angelyne, Tai Babilonia, Monty Hall, Leonard Nimoy, Mayor Riordan and Rachel Rosenthal. Though often impressive, Trabitz’s cornucopia of presentational shtick doesn’t always service the needs of the work.
Predating Frank Loesser’s more lighthearted “Guys and Dolls” by more than 20 years, “Happy End” was the Brecht/Weill team’s quick follow-up to the monumentally successful “Three Penny Opera,” which had premiered a year earlier.
Underscoring the quirky romance of courtly thug Bill Cracker (Dan Gerrity) and spiritually passionate Lt. Lilian Holiday (Weba Garretson) is Brecht’s socialistic indictment of a corrupt middle class that is eventually overcome by the united forces of the low criminals and the missionary saints. This vital thematic throughline is often obscured by the production’s sensual bombardment.
The production features some of Weill’s most memorable melodies, including the soul-rending “Surabaya Johnny” and lilting, “Bilbao Song.”
Trabitz distills the original 18-character work down to four body-miked actors. They project their varied personalities from almost every nook and cranny of the MOCA 18,000-square-foot performance area.
Since the adept eight-piece house band, led by keyboardist Joseph Berardi, is rooted in one spot, the interplay between musicians and actors ranges from dead-on brilliant to inaudible mush.
Fortunately, nothing deters Garretson, the laser-voiced leader of the Brecht-oriented Eastside Ensemble, who simply overpowers Brecht’s text and Weill’s music. She is ably supported by the sinewy Gerrity who quite often seems to glide, snake-like, about the premises.
Playing multiple roles, Elizabeth Ruscio and Chris Wells are quite facile but often must fight their way into the audience’s focus as they vie to compete with the other stimuli emanating from throughout the premises.
“Happy End” is a praiseworthy effort by MOCA to incorporate a wide range of artistic disciplines into their yet unfinished downtown space. It might be wise for future productions heed the sage advice: Less is more.