Weill’s rarely staged ‘Johnny Johnson’ set for Chicago Folks Operetta

SHARE Weill’s rarely staged ‘Johnny Johnson’ set for Chicago Folks Operetta

Gabriel di Genarro left) stars as the title character and Maxwell Seifert portrays Dr. Mahodan in “Johnny Johnson.” | Gerald Frantzen

Since its inception in 2006, Chicago Folks Operetta has done an admirable job of digging into the past and unearthing long forgotten operettas by Viennese and German composers. A lot of detective work is involved in finding these lost treasures, says artistic director Gerald Frantzen.

“Our goal is to figure out which works still have legs and then revitalize and refurbish them,” Frantzen says. “We’ve found ourselves in the position of not only recovering these works but also giving these lost composers a voice.”

‘Johnny Johnson’ When: June 24-July 9 Where: Chicago Folks Operetta at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Tickets: $40 Info: chicagofolksoperetta.org

The company’s current summer season is a bit different than past seasons. For one, it features a work created by a well-known German composer, Kurt Weill, and American playwright Paul Green; second, the season has a theme — War and Remembrance. Weill and Green’s anti-war operetta, “Johnny Johnson” fits the company’s mission perfectly as it is very rarely staged.

“You are never going to get a chance to see a fully staged production of ‘Johnny Johnson’ anywhere else,” states the show’s director George Cederquist. “It’s just not done, and if it is, it’s usually simply presented in a concert version.”

The season’s War and Remembrance theme is a nod to the 100th anniversary of the United States entry into World War I in April 1917. The musical’s title was inspired by the fact that the name Johnny Johnson appeared on WWI casualty lists more than any other name.

Co-authored with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Green, “Johnny Johnson” was Weill’s first work after leaving Germany and landing in the United States. It debuted in 1936 at New York’s Group Theatre (cast members included Lee J. Cobb, John Garfield and Elia Kazan). The Chicago Folks production, with music direction by Anthony Barrese, marks the operetta’s Midwest premiere.

Based on Jaroslav Hasek’s satiric novel “The Good Soldier Svejk,” the story is set during World War I as tombstone cutter Johnny Johnson (Gabriel Di Gennaro) is persuaded by his sweetheart, Minny Belle (Kaitlin Galetti), to enlist in the army. Once in France, he is confronted by the horrors of trench warfare and is determined to find a way to stop the war. Without giving away the entire story, suffice it to say things quickly go south for Johnny despite finding some success with his plan.

Of course, Chicago Folks is a niche company. There are maybe one or two companies in the entire country doing this sort of exploration, Frantzen says. “It’s an unusual space to fill,” he notes. “The Weill piece met our requirements of a show that needs rehabilitation in order to remount it. We didn’t have to translate it but musically it did feel like a translation.”

The show was created for the Federal Theatre Project, a Depression era program with a goal of putting people to work. The original show featured 60 actors and an orchestra; the Chicago Folks staging has 11 actors/singers in multiple roles and a 15-piece orchestra. Frantzen and Cederquist cast a wide net when looking for performers drawing from singers from the Lyric Opera and the Chicago Symphony and Grant Park choruses as well as from the city’s musical theater acting pool.

Cederquist, who is artistic director at Chicago Fringe Opera and an ensemble member at Steep Theatre,” says he immediately fell in love with Weill’s music, which includes stand-alone songs sung directly to the audience in true Weill fashion as well as orchestral music, which underscores a lot of the scenes.

“The instruments Weill used include banjo and organ which in his German mindset he thought of as extremely American,” Cederquist says. “Anthony is so good at bringing out all these different sounds in the orchestra.”

Frantzen, who admits to a “disproportionate interest in World War I” and owns a library of 300 books on the subject, says you can’t underestimate the impact the war had on the world.

“To me it’s the single most important event of the 20th century. I think Weill’s piece was prophetic in the sense that it was really a shot across the bow warning of a larger war, World War II, looming on the horizon.

“And in these times with nationalism so ramped up around the world it’s an appropriate reminder that history is always teaching us. The first World War still illustrates many lessons that still need to be learned.”

Chicago Folks Operetta’s season also includes a two-night performance of “Operetta and The Great War” (June 28-29, $30), a multi-media concert looking at how the European operetta industry survived The Great War. The evening features performances of songs from many forgotten WWI operettas.

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.

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