Who is more deluded — the man who heads off to war because he has been convinced it is the grandly heroic and patriotic thing to do, or the man who will try everything and anything to get the powers that be to work for peace?
That is the question at the heart of “Johnny Johnson,” the alternately sardonic, bitter, absurd and heartbreaking operetta by Kurt Weill and Paul Green now receiving a rare revival (and its Chicago premiere) by Chicago Folks Operetta. Weill, the fabled German-Jewish composer, fled the burgeoning Nazi regime and by 1935 had settled in the United States, a country he quickly came to love.
Based on Jaroslav Hasek’s novel “The Good Soldier Schwejk” and initially developed with the socially active Group Theatre, the musical carries themes that are, sadly, as timely as ever. Yet this rare revival is most intriguing as an historical artifact. For while Gabriel di Gennaro’s performance in the title role is exemplary, director George Cederquist hasn’t found a fully cohesive style for the production that might balance its Old World operetta style with a necessary contemporary edginess and pacing. Tighter editing by Gerald Frantzen would certainly have helped.
On the plus side, many of the voices in this 14-person cast are impressive (baritone Maxwell Seifert is particularly outstanding), although the vocal beauty often is marred by a lack of clear diction that makes the lyrics indecipherable. The 12-piece orchestra, under the expert direction of Anthony Barrese, has a fine feel for Weill’s distinctive mix of pastiche and lush lyricism. And while the show’s first act feels long and uneven, its second half is notably stronger.
When: Through July 9
Where: Chicago Folks Operetta
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
“Johnny Johnson” is set in small-town America and begins in April 1917, as an obelisk-shaped monument emblazoned with the word “Peace” is about to be unveiled in the town square. In part it is a tribute to President Woodrow Wilson’s policy of no foreign entanglements.
The monument is the work of Johnny Johnson (lanky, boyish Gennaro, whose easily genuine idealism rings true throughout). A tombstone carver by trade, he is madly in love with Minny Belle Tompkins (Kaitlin Galetti), who also has her eye on the more upwardly mobile Anguish (Joshua Smith). But everything changes in a minute as word comes that President Wilson has decided to enter World War I, “the war to end all wars.”
Suddenly, the pressure is on to enlist in the army, and while becoming a soldier is anathema to Johnny, he sees it is the only way to prove himself to Minnie. (In the ultimate irony, Anguish wrangles a medical excuse not to serve, and eventually becomes Minnie’s husband.)
Johnny is a terribly inept soldier but is ultimately sent to fight in France anyway, pledging himself to Lady Liberty (Christine Steyer) on the way out of New York harbor.
On the front line, amidst the horrors of trench warfare, Johnny is roundly mocked for writing letters to the Allied generals urging them to end the war. Yet when a sniper threatens he boldly volunteers to catch him. When he does, he quickly realizes the terrified 16-year-old, Johan (Joseph Frantzen), is much like himself, and after the two bond he releases the boy to carry a message of peace.
As it happens, Johnny is shot along the way, and ends up in a hospital that further exposes the insanity of war, as a sexy French nurse (Teaira Burge) tries to seduce him and a diva boasts of the vast audience of the wounded that await her performance. He escapes with a canister of laughing gas that is used on the patients and subsequently uses it to forestall the officers of many nations from carrying out the great assault that they know will result in hundreds of thousands of casualties (and millions of dollars for the munitions makers). Meanwhile, priests offer their useless prayers.
Johnny is arrested, returned to America and confined to a mental institution for 10 years. And it is there that he finds fellowship with others who are just crazy enough to support peaceful solutions to the world’s problems. The final irony is that when he is finally released, he encounters Minnie’s son, a Boy Scout hellbent on a military career.
Eric Luchen’s easily adaptable set, ideally lit by Erik Barry, is brightened by fine, period-defining costumes By Shanna Philipson. And there is this lingering question: Why does Minnie’s mother put on a big, bushy beard early in the action?
With 2017 marking the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entry into World War I, and with no shortage of wars and potential conflicts currently threatening much of the world, “Johnny Johnson” is a good reminder of the insanity of it all. At the same time it offers little hope that anything will change.