Reviewed by Judy Richter
"Happy End," subtitled "A Melodrama With Songs," incorporates the biting words of Bertolt Brecht with the jazz-infused, atonal music of Kurt Weill and follows in the footsteps of their earlier hit, "The Threepenny Opera." However, the 1929 work has never enjoyed the success or extensive production history of its predecessor. One of the few productions by a major Bay Area company came from Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 1982.
Carey Perloff, artistic director of American Conservatory Theater, makes a strong statement for "Happy End" in her smartly mounted production. Walt Spangler's two-level set, lit by Robert Wierzel, has a hard-edged, industrial feel with its metal panels and movable staircase. The upper level of the set is used for entrances and street scenes. It also serves as a platform for the excellent orchestra, led by musical director Constantine Kitsopoulos. The lower level alternates between Bill's Beer Hall, a Chicago dive populated by a gang of criminals; and a nearby Salvation Army mission. The character-specific costumes are by Candice Donnelly, the sound by Jeff Curtis. John Carrafa is the choreographer.
The action starts three days before Christmas in 1919 as the thugs prepare for their next heist. They're interrupted by their somewhat reclusive but merciless, feared leader, A Lady in Grey, aka "The Fly" (Linda Mugleston). She questions the bar's tough owner, Bill Cracker (Peter Macon), who is part of the gang, about what might have happened to some of the loot from a recent robbery. After she leaves, they're visited by a Salvation Army delegation led by the idealistic Lieutenant Lillian Holiday, aka "Hallelujah Lil" (Charlotte Cohn), who's attracted to Bill and he to her, though he won't acknowledge it. Still, they spend time together, resulting in her ouster from the mission and his from his fellow gangsters, who try to kill him. True to melodramatic form, however, things turn out relatively happily at the end, Christmas Day.
Although Perloff has assembled a generally strong cast, a key element -- chemistry between Macon as Bill and Cohn as Lil -- is missing. Macon is a competent but not outstanding singer. Cohn tends to use an operatic-type head voice most of the time, perhaps because Lil's songs are a bit high for her range. In fact, no one is outstanding as a vocal soloist, but most of the other roles aren't as vocally demanding as Lil's, so being true to the character is more important for them than achieving vocal perfection.
Creating memorable characters is where the rest of the cast shines. Among Bill's fellow thieves are Sam "Mammy" Wurlitzer (Jack Willis), a portly fellow who dons a dress for his part in a bank robbery. His "child" is Johnny "Baby Face" Flint (Justin Leath), who isn't too bright. Others in the gang are Sab Shimono as the sinister Dr. "The Governor" Nakamura, Charles Dean as Jimmy "The Reverend" Dexter and Rod Gnapp as Bob "The Professor" Marker. Celia Shuman plays Miriam, the barmaid.
The Salvation Army team is led by the rigid Major Stone (Joan Harris-Gelb). It includes Steven Anthony Jones as the ailing Captain Hannibal Jackson, René Augesen as Sister Mary, Lianne Marie Dobbs as Sister Jane and Jud Williford as Brother Ben Owens. Completing the fine ensemble are Jackson Davis, Dan Hiatt, Drew Hirshfield, Wendy James, Stephanie Saunders and Colin Thomson.