STAGE REVIEW : 1936 ANTIWAR FABLE JUMPS BACK TO LIFE
Most “lost” shows deserve to stay lost, but not Kurt Weill’s and Paul Green’s “Johnny Johnson” (1936). Where has this musical been all our lives?
Swept under the rug, is where. Never mind. It’s back, at the Odyssey Theatre. And it is a knockout, even when the actors don’t quite know what to do with it.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Jul. 03, 1986 CORRECTION
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 3, 1986 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 17 Column 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Two actors were mislabeled in Monday’s review of “Johnny Johnson” at the Odyssey Theatre. Joyce E. Greene plays the crabby mother and Robert Guidi is the mad psychiatrist.
The American theater never has quite known what to do about “Johnny Johnson.” It only ran a couple of months in its original Group Theatre production. There have been very few revivals. Its major interest is supposed to be Weill’s score, his first for a Broadway show.
Even director Ron Sossi’s program notes don’t seem terribly confident that the piece will work today. “To our contemporary eyes and ears, the tale may seem naive and simplistic in its consideration of the eternal problem of war, but. . . .”
But nothing. “Johnny Johnson” is an antiwar fable, yes. But Paul Green’s story is about as naive as one of Uncle Remus’ tales. You think you’re laughing at it; but it’s laughing at you. There’s a very American kind of slyness operating here, as in the very first scene, when the right-thinking folks of Anyplace, U.S.A., agree that peace, peace, peace is what’s kept America great. Except for when there’s a war, of course. This is one of those choruses that goes along with whatever it reads in the papers.
Set this kind of down-home satire against a dark score by Weill, just arrived in the United States from Nazi Germany and still in touch with his “Threepenny Opera” style, and you get a show that’s both charming and disturbing.
It’s especially disturbing in the trench scenes, which are heightened by some alarmingly realistic corpses, which rise, at one point, to sing a lullaby to the new troops. This is not children’s theater. When Weill breaks into real lyricism at the very end--with Johnny home from the war, still smiling--you realize how effectively his music has softened you up.
Yet there’s nothing soft-headed about “Johnny Johnson.” Our hero, a bit of a hothead himself, is perfectly willing to go off to war once he understands what it’s about, and when President Wilson tells him it’s “a war to end all wars” that’s enough for him.
But Johnny (Ralph Bruneau) catches it when he tries to get word to the German enlisted men that the Kaiser has been selling them a bill of goods. He stumbles into a confab of the Allies, and decides that everybody’s been sold a bill of goods. Luckily, he has a tank of laughing gas with him, a souvenir from when he landed in the base hospital after being wounded (in the backside).
A few spritzes of laughing gas and the bigwigs decide to, whoops, call off the war. Let’s dance. Needless to say, the laughing gas wears off, and the guns start popping again. After the armistice, Johnny is declared a mental case--by a psychiatrist who is obviously one--but eventually gets back to Anytown, to find that his girl Minny Belle (Michelle Chilton) has married the mineral-water salesman, Anguish Howlington (Bob Kip).
Poor Johnny. But the secret of Ralph Bruneau’s characterization--one wonders if other actors in the role have captured it--is that he’s not the slightest bit pathetic. Bruneau plays him as a shrewd country boy with a head on his shoulders and a belief that people aren’t so bad as their circumstances sometimes force them to be.
He’s not a wimp. In the trench scenes, he’s so zealous to get the word across to the enemy lines that his companions are somewhat afraid of him--you don’t know what a guy like this will do next. We’re never sorry for him. It’s the Minny Belles and the Anguishes who seem off their trolleys. There’s a lot of the early Jimmy Stewart in this Johnny Johnson, and a lot of Preston Sturges in that ending, where he decides to go on as a toy salesman. No toy soldiers, though.
Ron Sossi’s actors don’t enunciate their lyrics clearly enough and aren’t always sure how to get around certain scenes. Jack Younger as the psychiatrist, for example, plays his looniness into the ground. But the citizens of Anytown are absolutely on the nose, and they include the very same Jack Younger, as Minnie Bell’s grandfather--a happily eccentric inventor working on a perpetual-motion machine. Joan Welles as Minny’s mother seems to be in training for Lizzie Borden’s mother, and that’s a happy choice too.
The trench scenes also go beautifully, with a real sense of the boredom and the macabre side of war. (Thom McCleister, Wayne Wagner, Alexander Egan and Ronnie Sperling are some of the actors to thank here.)
Robert Lewis, one of the original members of the “Johnny Johnson” cast in 1936, was at the Odyssey opening Saturday night. He recalled that the original production was heavy with scenery. This version may be a little too spare, but Chez Cherry’s settings and Gayle Susan Baizer’s costumes are telling, nonetheless.
And Sue Roberts (to be spelled by Darryl Archibald) provides valiant support on piano, with some taped excerpts from Weill’s original orchestrations. “Johnny Johnson” is a bit of a patchwork at the Odyssey, but its freshness and relevance are startling. There’s even a scene where the Statue of Liberty (Susan Kohler) reminds us that she is just a statue. Simplistic?
‘JOHNNY JOHNSON’ A revival of the 1936 musical, presented by the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. Music Kurt Weill. Book and lyrics by Paul Green. Directed and produced by Ron Sossi. Musical director Sue Roberts. Set design Chez Perry. Lighting design R. Craig Wolf. Costumes design Gayle Susan Baizer. Choreography Joanne Parmilee. Recorded music supervised by Sasha Matson. Associate producer Mary Meis. Assistant director Joyce Baldwin. Production stage manager Karen Hirsch. With Ralph Bruneau, Marty Brinton, Michelle Chilton, Jack Younger, George Woodard, Alexander Egan, Walt Beaver, Bob Kip, Joan Welles, Brent Hinkly, Marc Cardiff, Mark Simon, Louis R. Plante, Michael More, Thom McCleister, Wayne Wagner, Ronnie Sperling, Don Dexter, Tim Stadler, Susan Kohler, Lee E. Stevens, Joyce R. Green, Janet Lazarus, Robert Guidi, Mark Hatfield, Craig McAllister, Jill Wakewood, Matthew Brinton, Nathan Brinton. Plays at 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, at 7 p.m. Sundays, with special matinees at 3 p.m. July 13 and July 27. Tickets $12.50-$16.50. 12111 Ohio Ave., 826-1626.