The Shaw Festival's productions have been getting progressively better all summer. The two final openings this season, an offbeat musical and an elaborate comedy, were greeted with wildly enthusiastic applause, and rightly so. Both works are demanding enough to warrant a "Not For Amateurs" warning label, but Shaw's superb artistic ensemble triumphs in them.
Intended to be another big hit following their Threepenny Opera, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's 1929 musical Happy Endwas initially a disastrous flop, and subsequently was hardly performed for five decades. Apparently, its original rejection resulted from a near-riot at the premiere after Brecht's wife, the legendary pain-in-the-ass actress Helene Weigel, interpolated shouts of Communist slogans into the last act. What seems to have brought the show back to life is Michael Feingold's brilliant English-language adaptation from 1972. The cast of director Tadeusz Bradecki's faithful but inventive new production seem to revel in it.
Admittedly, it remains an unrealistic mix of satiric wit, propaganda, derivative plot, and caricatured roles. The exotic settings and stories of its songs don't really fit its characters. Why, for instance, is an innocent Salvation Army lass singing about a raunchy affair with a man in Indonesia? Why is the menacing villain, a "sinister Oriental," so mannered and effeminate? Why is the big gangster boss a woman in drag? And what has any of this to do with Chicago in 1919?
But the tone somehow holds true; Brecht's lyrics are dazzling, and Weill's score is magnificent. In fact, at least two of Happy End's songs, "The Bilbao Song" and "Surabaya Johnny," have always been cited among the finest examples of Weill's compositions. Even when the show was in limbo, its songs were worldwide favorites.
Forget that the love affair between a gangster and a Salvation Army lieutenant as well as the gangsters joining the prayer meeting all seems like Guys and Dolls. Feingold notes that this show was written before the Damon Runyon stories on which that musical is based. Whatever its mysterious sources, Happy End makes playful use of its gangster plot to show how corrupt the whole society is, to show the virtue of beating the system, and mostly to develop its love stories and arrive at its happy ending with tongue firmly in cheek.
Standouts in the large cast include the two Runyonesque pairs of lovers: Benedict Campbell, dryly witty in his virile tough-guy hero portrayal, Blythe Wilson as his romantic interest Lieutenant Hallelujah Lil, Glynis Ranney as the tough-girl boss The Fly, and Mike Nadajewski as the amnesiac Salvation Army Captain who faints a lot.
Neil Barclay is a huge, hilarious gangster, especially in drag. Jay Turvey may be the least believable "Oriental" and most affected gangster I've ever seen, but he's priceless as Dr. Nakamura, and moves like a dancer. Jeff Lillico is coming into his own this season. He makes Baby Face Flint adorably animated and sells his songs by delivering choreographer Jane Johanson's old pro gestures with a sweet sincerity that lends them a peculiar panache, like deeply felt clichés. Robert Benson's Cop also has authority and cleverness beyond the stereotype.
They all sing well, or at least put over the songs properly; Some of the Brecht-Weill numbers require more bite than vocal richness. Ranney's "Fly" scores effectively with "Ballad of the Lily of Hell" in a voice that belongs on South Park, and Wilson's Lillian potently projects and acts two of the show's best songs in a decidedly unlovely voice.
Director Bradecki guides his production team --- musical director Paul Sportelli, set designer Peter Hartwell, costume designer Teresa Przybylski, and lighting designer Jeff Logue --- in a consistent, stylish approach that could serve as a lesson to Stratford's wrongheaded version last season of Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera.
By way of contrast, George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's The Royal Family is a surefire comedy classic that has enjoyed many successful revivals since its 1927 Broadway premiere. Shaw Festival has produced it before. Geva Theatre revived it some years ago. This summer Rochester's WXXI-TV showed a taped version of a distinguished Broadway revival from the '70s. But, though it's always a pleasure to revisit, The Royal Family is hardly an easy show to do well.
First of all, it requires an elaborate, realistic set of an extremely expensive New York duplex apartment loaded with memorabilia of the first family of the theater. These are the Cavendishes, not the Barrymores, but they suggest the legendary theater family descended from John Drew and his son-in-law Maurice Barrymore that is still represented by actress Drew. The actors must be glamorous, dynamic, and exciting enough to persuade an audience that they are the country's most gifted and famous theater stars. Then we need onstage piano-playing, a cast of at least 16, zany props, and animals (the televised New York revival included not only dogs but parrots, macaws, and a monkey).
Let's just say that Shaw's current version is a delight, generally well-cast, and sumptuously produced. Stratford diva Martha Henry directs with many felicitous touches and an unflagging lively pace. William Schmuck's designs are wonderfully helpful in characterizing the time and place and people, but also contribute another of his sets we'd like to live in and clothes we wish we could own. Kevin Lamotte's lighting is sensitive and elegant.
In the large cast I especially like Norman Browning and Nora McLellan, wickedly funny as the Deans, the Royal Family's actor-relatives who are notably lower in line of succession. Robert Benson richly characterizes Oscar, the family's protective producer. He is genuinely touching when Oscar learns that Fanny, the grande dame of the family, is too ill to act again. Patricia Hamilton is a dignified Fanny Cavendish, sharp in her sarcastic lines and compelling, if not inspiring. Goldie Semple is all the Ethel Barrymore character needs to be: beautiful, strong, involving, funny, and patrician. And Peter Hutt is electric and very funny as Tony, the John Barrymore role; but I know that he can use his voice more grandly and musically than he does here, and for this role he should.
This is a first-rate revival, whatever my minor quibbles, and provides a grand time in the theater.
Shaw Festival, Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario, Canada: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's Happy End at the Royal George Theatre through October 31; George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's The Royal Family at the Festival Theatre through November 23. Tix: $20-$77 Canadian dollars (currently $14.43-$55.54 US). 800-511-7429, www.shawfest.com.