As performing arts organisations and audiences slowly become more confident that scheduled productions will actually materialise, despite the inevitable challenges of an unpredictable pandemic, Melbourne’s cultural life is looking much healthier. Even so, hearts sank when Victorian Opera’s Artistic Director, Richard Mills, appeared on stage to make an announcement prior to the beginning of Happy End. Were we about to hear a sudden unhappy end to plans for the evening? And yes, it was COVID-19 related.
In this case, it was far from worst-case scenario: Ensemble member Bridget Mylecharane was to replace Emily Burke in the role of Sister Mary. Happy End is very much an ensemble piece entailing singing actors to be onstage together for much of the time, particularly scenes involving Salvation Army members, so that Mylecharane was able to perform confidently in her new role.
Happy End was first performed in 1929, two years and two days after the premier of Brecht and Weill’s previous collaboration, The Threepenny Opera. Just as the latter drew on The Beggar’s Opera, Elisabeth Hauptmann’s book drew inspiration from Shaw’s Major Barbara – apparently the reason for Brecht’s use of the “Dorothy Lane” pseudonym for her authorship sprang from copyright concerns. The story of an unlikely love affair between a violent criminal and a Salvation Army lass, who succeeds in reforming him, also found favour with the writers of Guys and Dolls. To work, Happy End needs performers who can recreate Chicago’s bizarre worlds with animated flair and finely tuned comic timing.
In his program note, director Matthew Lutton remarks on the contradictions within Happy End, “It’s written by a German team of theatre makers for actors, yet it is set in an imagined America. It’s a melodrama and work of political ideas, where the songs were written separate from the script. It uses Brechtian archetypal characters … yet the central characters and the songs themselves are deeply moving.” At the end of Act 1 some audience members may have been wondering why Victorian Opera had decided to mount this “Play with Music in Three Acts”, since so few songs had been featured. By the end it should have been apparent that Kurt Weill’s music unquestionably merits the attention it increasingly receives. The Bilbao Song, The Sailor’s Tango and, most notably, Surabaya Johnny have been popularised by cabaret performers from Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya, to Ute Lemper and beyond. My personal favourite is the charismatic opera singer Teresa Stratas, who was given a major stamp of approval when Lenya gave her some original Weill songs after seeing her perform.
Wisely omitting the nasty pharmacist shakedown role play, the opening scene is set alight by Kurt Kansley’s dynamic portrayal of Mr Tuppo (The Governor). Teeth gleaming in menacing delight, he sang The Bilbao Song with energetic intensity, using the small thrust stage to connect with the audience in Brechtian style. Whenever Kansley was on stage, the excitement level went up a notch. The effectiveness of his dramatic appearance after having been “shot” was a credit to both his ebullient personality and some well-judged direction by Lutton.
As Bill Cracker, the owner of Bill’s Beer Hall and the butt of the gang leader’s lethal displeasure, Adam Murphy presented an imposing grim foil to the silly mayhem surrounding him. As his counterpart in the role of outsider – drummed out of the Army for being alone with a man for one whole hour – Lucy Maunder made a sweetly earnest Lieutenant Lillian Holiday/ Hallelujah Lil. In her quest to rescue Bill’s soul but show that she has more to her than narrow-minded piety, Lillian downs some whiskies and sings The Sailor’s Tango. Although Maunder’s rendition was a fairly sober, constrained interpretation, her Surabaya Jonny in Act 3 was considerably more heartfelt and engaging.
Brecht’s wife, Helene Weigl, was cast as gang leader The Lady in Grey (The Fly) in the original production, and it was partly the political anti-capitalist nature of her final speech that almost precipitated a riot and led to the work’s premature close. In this key role, Ali McGregor impressed theatrically and vocally, finding gritty humour in her exercise of power, and pulling off most of the quick costume transformations smoothly. Plot-wise, The Fly’s sudden discovery of her long lost husband (now Brother Jackson) is ridiculous, but McGregor and Richard Pyros consistently embraced the opportunity to enjoy the farcical nature of this romp. Despite the absurdity, some audience members might have been just a little uneasy when Fly said “Robbing a bank’s no crime compared to owning one”, decried capitalists and invited us to respond to what is in effect a rallying cry for communism. It was also a reminder of how indebted the Arts are to philanthropic generosity in this country.
Among a number of strong performances, Jennifer Vuletic impressed as Major Stone. She managed to blend vigorous authority with kindly resolution in an appealing way despite the Major’s unchristian rejection of Lillian on Christmas Eve. The point of hypocritical religion was made with a light touch. A notable feature of all performances was the clarity of the diction, aided by the use of body mics. Pains had been taken to ensure every word of the text was heard.
Marg Horwell’s set and costume design enabled an efficient use of space, although both the upper level of Salvation Army quarters and the lower level of Bill’s Beer Hall might have benefitted from a more down-at-heel look in some respects. It was a pity that the sound of falling plastic “glasses” tended to detract from the atmosphere in a couple of tense moments.
The ensemble of nine musicians under the direction of Phoebe Briggs boasted some excellent playing. Callum G’Froerer’s sultry muted trumpet in Surabaya Jonny was a highlight, while Joe Chindamo’s accordion, Stuart Byrne’s saxophones, and Doug de Vries’ banjo (plus guitars) were essential to creating the flavors of Weill’s mix of dance, jazz and mock-religious styles.
Victorian Opera has given musical theatre lovers a rare opportunity to hear a work by one of the most important lyricist/composer collaborations of the 20th Century. Don’t miss it.
Photo credit: Jeff Busby.
Heather Leviston reviewed “Happy End”, presented by Victorian Opera at the Arts Centre Melbourne Playhouse on March 23, 2022.