By Bertolt Brecht
2 Drama-Logue Awards – Summer 1985
EVENING OUTLOOK _ Tues., June 25, 1985
‘Happy End’ is a happy beginning 1
By MATTHEW SANDEL
“Happy End” is melodramatic without being forced, farcical without being silly, and satirical without being vicious. That is to say, it’s thoroughly engaging and entertaining, stylish, witty and polished.
This “melodrama with songs,” as it is billed, written by Bertolt Brecht with music by Kurt Weill, gets a fine production by the newly-formed Pacific Theater Ensemble at the Powerhouse Theater in Santa Monica. The play is set in 1931 Chicago and deals with the misadventures of Bill Cracker and his eccentric fellow gangsters and his involvement with Lieutenant Lillian Holiday and her kooky cohorts from the Salvation Army.
In act one, we meet the habitues of Bill’s Beer Hall, including types like Sam Wurlitzer, who tries to sell an organ “real cheap” to the Salvation Army; “The Governor,” dapper and smart in his gray suit, whose criminal alter ego is one Dr. Nakamura, a comically sinister character complete with false moustache, dark glasses, felt hat and phony accent; the habitually hyperactive Baby Face; and “The Fly,” the diminutive dame who is the brains behind the brawn. The joint is crawlin’ with colorful characters.
Then, of course, there’s Bill Cracker, the proprietor of Bill’s Beer Hall, who also happens to be the coolest, smartest, toughest man in the gang – and one helluva lonely guy, as he himself admits: Until Lieutenant Lil and her Salvation Army troupe come to the bar to cave the souls of these disreputable sinners.
The play contines along this line, following the romance between Bill Cracker and Lillian, the complications that ensue, the gang’s plan for a Christmas Eve bank robbery, and various murders and attempted murders involving the gang. The play is funny throughout, and at times it’s very funny. The script, translated by Michael Feingold, is witty and biting and the acting by the entire ensemble is skillful, confident and believable. To maintain believability with these broad, almost stereotypical characters is a difficult task, but these actors pull it off beautifully.
Julia Fletcher’s able direction obviously plays a big part in achieving this balance between exaggeration and believability, as well as giving the whole show a polished look and a bright tempo. Fletcher’s staging and choreography is exciting and always visually interesting; she makes fine use of Benecia Martinez’ wonderful multi-leveled set. Martinez’ costumes are also excellent, as is Ilya Mindlin’s lighting.
Michael Tulin brings a nice suave toughness, with a pinch of melancholy, to Bill Cracker. As Lillian, Sally Smythe also performs well and has good comic timing. However, she has some trouble with Weill’s demanding, rangy music, most noticeably in the long The Sea Is Blue song she sings in the first act. Her staging could be scaled down here to help her out; the music and copious lyrics are enough to challenge any singer’s stamina. She could add more warmth to her characterization, too, but overall, it’s a good performance.
Other notables include Jospeh Olivieri as the fast-talking Sam Wurlitzer with the fat pink necktie, the graceful John DeMita who clowns and sings with equal skill as The Governor, Lori Martin as the hard-boiled barmaid, Catherine Telford as the officious Major Stone, and Carla Obert as the skittish, mousey Sister Jane of the Salvation Army. She is especially impressive because she creates such a funny, detailed character with a minimum of dialogue. As “The Fly,” Sarah Xinsser is funny and understated, but perhaps a bit too understated: it seems like she could shed some of her reserve and go for it.
The distinctive Brecht/Weill songs are good, especially the opening number (The Bilbao Song) and the mournful Saurabaya-Johnny that Smythe performs so well.
The energy and talent evident in this premiere production of the Pacific Theater Ensemble is exciting to see, especially in the convenient and comfortable Powerhouse. If “Happy End” is an indication of what we can expect from the PTE in the future, we are in for a treat.
“Happy End,” produced by Scott Belyrea, continues its run through July 20, with performances every Thursday through Sunday at 8 p.m. at the Powerhouse Theater, 3116 Second St., Santa Monica. For reservations, call 392-6529.
Matthew Sandel is a West Los Angeles-based free-lance theater critic.