ACT is advertising “Happy End” as “The Gangster Musical”– that and accompanying graphics suggest something cool and relatively modern, along the lines of “Chicago” or “City of Angels.” It’s a fair bet many patrons won’t realize they’re in for a nearly 80-year-old show, albeit one whose book was overhauled by Michael Feingold in 1972. There’s a lot to like in Carey Perloff’s staging, a rare musical for ACT and a challenging one at that. It emerges as a lively, splashy package in acting and design terms, unevenly sung, and still hobbled by problems that made the show’s first incarnation a notorious flop in 1929.
So many of the Brecht/Weill songs — most famously “Surabaya Johnny” — immediately took on a life of their own that “Happy End” long ago cast off the loser status it gained among those severely disappointed in the duo’s followup to “Threepenny Opera.” Decades later, revivals began boosting its rep. But some brickbats originally directed at it remain accurate enough, notably criticism of the sarcastically pro-capitalist finale as something seemingly dropped in from another show.
Nor can a lack of chemistry between Perloff’s leads, acting in very different styles, pull off the desultory — though no doubt somewhat shocking in 1929 — emotional focus, on the romantic frisson between Salvation Army crusader Lillian Holiday, aka “Hallelujah Lil” (Charlotte Cohn), and “heart of stone” Chicago syndicate thug Bill Cracker (Peter Macon).
More gratifying are the slaphappy comic intrigues among Bill’s gang, including the prickly Governor (Sab Shimono), blustery Manny (Jack Willis), the Reverend (Charles Dean), the Professor (Rod Gnapp) and pipsqueaky Baby Face (Justin Leath).
Best of all are scenes including their imperious lady boss, known only as the Fly. In the crumbling-vamp tradition of Charles Addams drawings and Carol Burnett as Norma Desmond, Broadway vet Linda Mugleston carries both lethal and camp authority. She’s in a class unto herself here –certainly vocally, with solos on “Ballad of the Lily of Hell” and “Ballad of the Pirates” (the one interpolated song here) providing such highlights that you wish there were more of her, especially when fellow thesps’ vocal abilities fall short.
Making the least happy impression in that regard are Shimono, who makes Governor a deft retro caricature but does no musical favors to “The Bilbao Song” and “Song of the Big Shot”; and Macon, a forceful if humorless Bill whose bellowing volume can’t disguise wayward pitch on his vocal spotlights.
Cohn’s operatic soprano is lovely, making some sense of a confusedly motivated role — one senses Brecht and writing collaborator Elisabeth Hauptmann understood spiritual faith only as hypocrisy or a chump’s game — but she undersells the gravity of “Surabaya Johnny.”
Of course, that and many other songs in “Happy End” arguably play better outside their original context, because they barely fit it to begin with. A vast majority of these complicated, wistful, poison-tipped ditties (beautifully conducted by music director Constantine Kitsopoulos, using Weill’s eccentric designated combination of instruments) are story-songs with little relation to their placement in the narrative. At times it seems the book (even in Feingold’s very “free adaptation”) and score were created independently of each other, then slapped together during a 1929 rehearsal process.
Though it feels a bit stretched at three acts (the second under 25 minutes), Perloff’s production has an event feel, borne out by ensemble high spirits, John Carrafa’s clever choreography for a cast of nondancers and the impressive design package. Walt Spangler’s set of steel girders and ramps evokes retro German Expressionist industrial futurism; Robert Wierzel’s lighting is a noirish yet luridly colorful treat; Candice Donnelly’s costumes are subdued or garish, but always witty.
Jeff Curtis’ sound design deserves special note — this is one miked show that on opening night sounded acoustically A-OK.