Weill-ing away the hours

Pub date June 27, 2006
WriterRobert Avila
SectionArts & CultureSectionTheater

› a&eletters@sfbg.com
Happy End was thrown together in 1929 at the behest of a starry-eyed theater producer looking to capitalize on the surprise success the previous year of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. It was an ominous year for capitalizing ventures in general, you might say. As if to prove it, Happy End, whose story of Chicago gangsters and Salvation Army evangelists was cobbled together by Brecht and Elisabeth Hauptmann, was anything but a success in its time. In fact, after its famously negative reception Brecht made a point of distancing himself from it. The score alone, including some of Weill’s most memorable work, survived more or less unscathed — at least until Michael Feingold’s 1972 English-language version helped give the full musical new life.
American Conservatory Theater’s production of Happy End makes it clear how, showing the revival off as something more than mere pretext for reanimating Brecht and Weill’s irresistible songs. True, Brecht and Hauptman’s plot seems like thin stew for three acts: In the midst of an evolving heist, Salvation Army Lieutenant Lillian Holiday (a slender but steely and musically superb Charlotte Cohn), a.k.a. Hallelujah Lil, leads her Christian soldiers to battle for souls in the gangster den of Bill’s Beer Hall, only to fall in love with top dog Bill Cracker (a gruffly charismatic Peter Macon) and precipitate falling outs with their respective outfits. Moreover, the political critique buried in its happy-go-lucky story is, let’s just say, unlikely to provoke anything like the notorious uproar of boos and whistles offered up by its bourgeois audience in 1929.
But ACT’s production and Feingold’s fluid adaptation (which cleaves to Brecht’s lyrics but freely reworks much of the book) make it easy to Weill away the hours (just over two of them) until lead gangster “The Fly” (Linda Mugleston) utters her famous closing line: “Robbing a bank’s no crime compared to owning one!” The show winds up with a terrific mocking paean to capitalist “saints” John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and J.P. Morgan. Throughout, artistic director Carey Perloff’s staging is stylish, lively, and sure, while the comedic and musical performances from a first-rate cast (decked out in Candice Donnelly’s snazzy costumes) are enjoyable enough that you won’t worry about the plot, or lack thereof.
While slight in comparison with much of Brecht’s oeuvre, Happy End has contagious fun with the contradictions inherent in a jolly left-wing musical assailing the capitalist class in the midst of one of its own commercial theaters. Walt Spangler’s bold scenic design says as much with its oddly shaped, impossibly shiny steel surfaces covered in a rash of rivets — including a great flat moon that descends from the flies in time for the moonlight evoked by both “The Bilbao Song” and “The Mandalay Song.”
Stumbling out of a series of Mission bars and onto 16th Street the other night, I was drawn to the doorway of yet another bar after my friend got a whiff of something worth investigating. There we proceeded to make friends with what seemed to be two other lollygaggers. Then one of them proffered a flyer, and asked us if we ever go to the theater. (We’d actually just come from a play, which, featuring a pitcher of Bloody Marys, had inspired our copycat binge.) We nodded and took the flyer. This sounded like fate to us, so the next day we headed to the Marsh and the New Voices Festival to see Rude Boy, a one-man show written and performed by Ismail Azeem about a troubled African American man moving in and out of various institutions and realities. Its combination of raw energy, deft delivery, beautifully honed characters, and inspired narrative flow (moving seamlessly from monologue to hip-hop to stand-up to dialogue and communion with the dead) was so transporting I actually lost my hangover. I wish I could report the show were still running, but stay tuned — chances are you’ll be hearing more about Azeem. SFBG
Through July 9. Tues.–Sat., 8 p.m. (also Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.)
Geary Theater
415 Geary, SF
(415) 749-2228