Review: “Johnny Johnson”

(Left to right) Gabriel di Gennaro (Johnny) and Maxwell Seiftert perform a scene from “Johnny Johnson” now playing at the Chicago Folks Operetta at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., through July 9. – Aaron Syler

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Where: Chicago Folks Operetta at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
When: through July 9
Tickets: $40
For tickets and info: www.chicagofolkssoperetta.org

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Hats off to Chicago Folks Operetta for undertaking a formidable task: The Chicago premiere of “Johnny Johnson,” the 1936 anti-war operetta by Kurt Weill (music) and playwright Paul Green (libretto).

Loosely based on Jaroslav Hasek’s novel, “The Good Soldier Svejk,” the work was originally performed by New York’s socially conscious Group Theatre in a drastically cut form. In 1937, it was remounted in Los Angles and Boston by the Federal Theater Project. The Los Angeles version, for which most of the cuts had been restored by Green, is the one being used by CFO, as edited by Dr. Timothy Clark and, for this production, by artistic director Gerald Frantzen.

The script is very talky, rambling at times, and rather repetitive, but Weill’s score and the 30-some songs more than compensate, especially since they’re performed by a first-rate 12-person orchestra under conductor Anthony Barnese. They have a real feel for Weill’s music and pastiche of styles, and you can hear echoes of “The Threepenny Opera” and “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” his masterful collaborations with Bertolt Brecht before he left Nazi Germany in 1935, as well as previews of his more commercial shows in the U.S.

The talent in the cast also is an asset. While the acting is uneven, most of the actors are terrific singers, and quite a few have operatic voices. Fortunately, the ensemble is led by Gabriel di Gennaro as the title character, whose name is derived from the one that appeared most frequently on the World War I casualty lists. His Johnny Johnson is so sincere and likable that you can’t help but empathize with his enthusiasm, bewilderment, and earnest if ill-fated efforts to stop the war as he lives through experiences fraught with irony, horror, and disillusionment.

Those experiences start in April of 2017 on a hilltop outside a small American town at the dedication of a monument to peace made by Johnson, a tombstone carver by trade. But right after all the speeches, a messenger arrives to say the President Woodrow Wilson has announced that the United States will enter the war, and the tone of the gathering changes with everyone becoming gung-ho for the fight. Everyone except Johnson, who remains skeptical even though the love of his life, Minny Belle Thompkins (Kaitlin Galetti), urges him to enlist and fight—and won’t agree to marry him unless he does. Nonetheless, it’s only when he learns that Wilson has called this “the war to end all wars” that the idealistic Johnson eagerly signs up.

I don’t usually recommend reading the synopsis on of a show in the program beforehand, but in this case, it may help you figure out what’s going on and where the scenes are supposed to be set. That’s because George Cederquist’s direction is murky, messy, and at times simply doesn’t make any sense. For example, Minny Belle’s mother, Aggie Thompkins (Mary Lutz-Govertsen), puts on a bushy fake beard for no particular reason and never takes it off. Actor Robert Nuñez, who plays multiple roles like many of the ensemble members, appears in the second half wearing heavy blue eye makeup that doesn’t fit any of his characters. Other details and effects are equally odd, and a coherent overall conception seems to be missing.

In addition, Eric Luchen’s set design relies mostly on rough curtains and packing crates that get moved around a lot, which is fine stylistically but doesn’t help establish locations. Indeed, some scenes seem to be in the wrong place: Johnson’s supposed to capture Johan, the German sniper (Joseph Frantzen), hiding in a statue of Christ in a ruined French churchyard (the program says), but the peace monument from the first scene is used to stand in for the statue.

Capturing that sniper comes across as a crucial turning point for Johnson. After enduring ridiculous basic training ordeals, earning the scorn of his superiors for backwardness and his refusal to use a bayonet, convincing a general to let him go to France anyway, and prompting mockery by his fellow soldiers for writing letters to generals urging them to stop the war, he volunteers for what seems to be a suicide mission. But when he realizes the German is only 16 years old, and shares his name to boot, he befriends him and sends him back to his side with letters suggesting that everyone want to end the fighting.

Johnson gets a bullet in the butt for his efforts, and his time in the hospital reveals the hypocrisy of everyone from the French nurse who tries to seduce him to a diva of a nun who is delighted to have so many wounded soldiers to sing for but thinks him a coward because of where his wound is. He also gets an idea: Preferring laughing gas to mustard gas, he steals a canister used on patients, interrupts a meeting of the Allied high command planning the final battle, and uses the gas on them—which makes them reverse the attack order.

His victory only lasts long enough for an officer on the battlefield to go ahead with the attack, and Johnson is arrested and sent to a mental hospital where the doctor is crazier than the patients. He spends 10 years there, starting a League of Nations-type group to peacefully discuss world affairs and learning that his beloved Minny Belle actually has married his rival, Anguish Howton (Joshua Smith), who with her mother’s help, avoided enlisting by pretending to be sick and almost blind.

Knowing he’s lost his love, Johnson doesn’t even want to be released from the institution, but he can’t avoid it and ends up as an itinerant peddler selling wooden toys he’s carved on the street. In a final irony, Minny Belle turns up with her son, a boy scout, who wants to be a soldier and to buy a toy one—but that’s the one toy Johnson won’t make. Meanwhile, we’re supposed to hear a rally for a coming war and see a military parade. Johnson also has a couple of encounters with the Statue of Liberty (Christine Steyer), the last of which I think is supposed to show he’s still hopeful for peace, though it’s not exactly clear.

An overall lack of clarity mars CFO’s “Johnny Johnson,” but the subject matter and the complexity of the issues remain all too timely. The show certainly is worth seeing on a purely musical level, and it also offers insights into Weill’s genius and the period, despite its flaws.