Nov. 27, 1997
at the Group Repertory Theatre
A strange time warp attends any production of Happy End, in which wiseguys cross paths with the Salvation Army and the gang leader falls for the lady preacher. This Weimar-era Brecht/Weill concoction predates both Damon Runyon's short story and the musical Guys and Dolls by several years, but the similarities of plotting, milieu, and ironic themes are uncanny enough to be eerie, if no longer actionable.
In any case, Michael Feingold's deft, amiable adaptation of the original, which is the English-language performance standard, makes a lively, respectable entertainment. And in his new production, director Malcolm Atterbury, logically and mostly fruitfully, has taken the material back to Brecht's initial inspiration for his "American" stories: silent films. There are witty bijou-style title cards, slightly less witty piped-in sound effects (more about that), a constant soundtrack of rinky-tink piano versions of "Bilbao Song" and such, and a few scenes performed broadly in a flickering strobe.
And he's aptly outfitted the show with a gallery of vintage, inter-continental criminal types: the dese-dem-dose wiseguy contingent led by Christopher Winfield's tough-as-nails boss, Robert Gallo's gap-toothed sharpie, and Van Boudreaux's dim, hotheaded tough, and the more European tradition of evil geniuses and dandies headed up by Philip McKeown's sleek hitman, Klair Bybee's oily "reverend," and Marius Mazmanian's deadpan slack-jawed professor.
The Salvation Army contingent is a tad less iconic—there were no Keystone Kristian comedies, after all—but it's got the passionate young firebrand, Hallelujah Lil (Mary Jo Niedzielski, with a great period look), the gruff but lovable major (Vicki Pacifico, doing a passable Marjorie Main-meets-Maureen Stapleton), the dim sidekicks (Gwen Van Dam and the excellent Beverly Allen), the fussy prude (Mark Atha), and the lisping choirboy (Daniel Trippet, overdoing it). The army and the gang are all dressed in the crisp, varied palette of Shon LeBlanc's costumes, and work mostly well on Atterbury's excellent, subtly bifurcated set. In general, the show works quite fleetly and nicely as a play.
Unfortunately, though, it tanks as a musical. Only Shandra Sinnamon, as überboss the Fly, puts across a winning number (the difficult "Ballad of the Lily of Hell"). The rest—and I won't single anyone out—are either out of tune or time. Granted, these are not the kind of logical, plot-furthering book songs we're accustomed to—all the more reason they need to be knocked out of the park.
But the real tempo and dynamic problems come from an over-produced, pre-recorded, piped-in score—a perverse choice, considering that musical director Darrin Degenhardt is present in the house to lead the singers. From what I could see, Degenhardt doesn't play a note on his Kurzweil—and, while it puts across Brecht-via-Feingold quite well, this production doesn't do much for Kurt Weill, either.
"Happy End," presented by and at the Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., N. Hollywood. Nov. 14-Dec. 29. (818) 769-7529.