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THEATER : 'Happy End' Is Strictly for Laughs

June 13, 1991|SYLVIE DRAKE | Sylvie Drake is the Times' theater critic.

In "Happy End," the season closer at South Coast Repertory, director Barbara Damashek has gone for the jocular rather than the jugular, keeping her tongue firmly lodged in her cheek.

Not too dark or too deep--you might call it a farcical musical satire about a mythical Chicago in 1919, littered with cops, robbers, Salvation Army sisters and unrelated songs about Kiplingesque figures wailing off the coast of Mandalay.

Written by Bertolt Brecht and composed by Kurt Weill in 1929, "Happy End" is not in the same league as the team's earlier success, "Threepenny Opera," but it's a strange, playful little satire.

In this lip-smacking 1972 adaptation by Michael Feingold (which found its way to Broadway in 1977), the accent is not on fading politics but on imaginative spoofing. Harmless traces of the political anger of the time can be found in the prologue--magnified projections of a dollar bill in which the picture of George Washington is replaced by such capitalist eminences as J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and, for pure fun, the author and composer and the directors of the current theater.

Although the turmoil of 1929 Germany and the political convictions of its authors flavored the creation of "Happy End," the piece today stands chiefly as historical artifact. It is a clunkily structured uncommon comedy with music, one in which we laugh as much at the ineptness of the plot as we do at the fun that is had with it.

A band of bungling small-time extortionists and thieves, commanded by a mysterious woman known only as "The Fly" (Fran Bennett), run afoul of Salvation Army zealots--in particular pretty Lillian Holiday (Patricia Ben Peterson), a.k.a. Hallelujah Lil, who falls for fearsome Bill Cracker (Christopher Allport), the very crook she most wants to save.

You can just about cut to the chase from there, but the plot (whose origins are murky) is incidental to the sight gags, stereotypes and songs--most of which have little to do with the story but many of which are among Weill's best, such as "The Bilbao Song," "The Sailors' Tango," "Song of the Big Shot," "The Mandalay Song" and "Surabaya Johnny."

Damashek has been inventive. She has included the suggestion of Keystone Kop routines, Rube Goldberg contraptions and other visual jokes that gleefully affirm the silliness of the story.

Standouts in the strong if not exceptional cast are Ron Boussom (as the sinister Dr. Nakamura), Robert Machray (big boy Sam (Mammy) Wurlitzer), Jane A. Johnston (a delightfully fumbling Major Stone), Bennett, Allport and Peterson. Shigeru Yaji's costumes for this ragtag band make comic statements in themselves. Cartoony shadow plays are part of Paulie Jenkins' lighting design, and Ralph Funicello has created a grim context of racks and gears, broken mirrors and grime that switch from Bill's Beer Hall to the equally seedy Salvation Army Mission on Canal Street.

It's all doubly delicious since productions of the Brecht-Weill "Happy End" do not abound.

What: "Happy End," a musical with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht and music by Kurt Weill.

When: Through July 13. Tuesdays through Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

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Whereabouts: San Diego Freeway (405) to Bristol Avenue exit north. Take Bristol to Town Center Drive.

Wherewithal: $27-$34.

Where to Call: (714) 957-4033.

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