Just before the happy end of “Happy End,” the 1929 Bert Brecht/Kurt Weill
musical that began a five week run at Costa Mesa’s South Coast Repertory on
Friday night — the ringleader of the bandit gang delivers a ringing speech.
Robbing a bank, she (yes, she) proclaims, is nowhere near as great a sin as
owning one. Since the mostly marvelous production at South Coast has been
underwritten by the “honorary producer,” the First Interstate Bank, it’s
clear that Orange County contains more liberal spirits than are usually
Not, of course, that these ringleader’s sentiments or anything else in this
hugely amusing (and hugely messy) dramatic farrago is to be taken at face
value. Barbara Damashek’s sizzling, whizzing staging, and her superior cast of
ruby-throated comedians who carry it out, forestall such a possibility.
Brecht himself publicly disowned the playscript, yet his thumbprints are all
over: the setting among Chicago gangsters and Salvation Army lassies, which he
returned to in other plays, the cynical doubletalk, the inane satire of the
“happy end.” Michael Feingold’s English text is more a version than merely a
translation; common sense lurks somewhere just out of reach. (By the way, the
Damon Runyon story that became “Guys and Dolls,” which Brecht’s story most
resembles, was as yet unwritten at the time of “Happy End.”)
But Brecht at least acknowledged his lyrics, and these were what drew out of
Kurt Weill a torrent of music that ranks among the best theater songs of his or
anyone else’s time. When Patricia Ben Peterson pins the audience to its
collective seats with her searing “Surabaya Johnny,” the song that is the
exact orchestration of heartbreak; when the gang of thugs go all to pieces with
their nostalgia for “Bill’s beerhall in Bilbao”; or when thugs and
salvationists join forces for the hilarious sendup known as “The Liquor
Dealer’s Dream,” you know you’re being had and you willingly give in.
It’s a splendid production all told. Oh, perhaps Christopher Allport could lose
some of his stiffening as the romantic lead; perhaps Ron Boussom, as the
insidious “Dr. Nakamura” could keep his Japanese accent from veering off into
middle-high German. Perhaps…
Never mind. Peterson’s Lillian is mostly glorious. Among the thugs there’s the
marvelous solo turns by Robert Machray and Jerome Butler; as the uptight
Salvationist major Jane A. Johnston is a starchy delight. Ralph Funicello’s
stage design, including an oversized Industrial-Revolution engine to drive a
mere nickelodeon, is its own catalog of wonders. “Happy End” is eminently
worth your while; you’ll be happy long before the end.
What: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “Happy End”
Were: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
When: 8 p.m., Tuesday-Friday; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.,
Sunday, thru July 13.
Behind the scenes: staged by Barbara Damashek, musical direction by Dennis
Castellano; designed by Ralph Funicello.
Starring: Patricia Ben Peterson, Christopher Allport and Ron Boussom.
Tickets: $27-$34; for reservations phone 714 957-4033.

This entry was posted in Daily News. Bookmark the permalink.