By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic
One hundred years ago, the United States entered World War I. To mark this anniversary, Chicago Folks Operetta has mounted “Johnny Johnson,” a musical anti-war piece by Kurt Weill with libretto by Paul Green. CFO, previously known for staging bouncy, bubbly operettas not widely known to most Chicagoans, has broken new ground with this work that is hard to categorize. It is in part polemic and in part song collection, and can be viewed as either musical or operetta, depending on your definitions.
Whatever you call it, it is important and extremely interesting.
The title was chosen because Johnny Johnson was the name that appeared most frequently on American casualty lists. The Weill-Green Johnson is not a gung-ho soldier, but a simple man who believes in peace and abhorred the dehumanization of war. Because he is so out of step with the prevailing political view of the time, he ends up chastised for his own sincere attempts to end the war and is thrown unceremoniously into a loony bin. The joke, of course, is that the operetta shows Johnson to be the most sane person in a collection of bizarrefolk who are rigid war supporters, all for the wrong and often cynical reasons.
Weill’s music is wide-ranging, and bristles with vigorous melodies, deft dissonances, and ironic touches. Green’s libretto feels a bit dated (the work premiered in 1936), yet the universal elements of the destructive qualities of war shine through. And unlike the original audiences, we know that another destructive war took place less then a decade after the premiere.
CFO has assembled a strong cast, led by Gabriel di Gennaro as Johnny Johnson in his CFO debut. His characterization can be thin at times, particularly since the operetta runs two-and-a-half hours, but his gentleness and sincerity pulse strongly throughout the evening and you readily come to identify with the title character.
All the other singers play much smaller roles and CFO has inserted some real winners on the stage, many playing multiple characters. Kaitlin Galetti as Johnny’s love interest sings with freshness and you are deeply disappointed when she jilts Johnny and goes on to mother a child eager for the next war.
Christine Steyer is a stand-out in the double role of the Statue of Liberty and the Sister. In the former, she offers a grave message to Johnny as he leaves the US to serve in Europe. Her sound is polished and silvery. Later, she is hilarious in the camp role of a Sister ready to entertain the troops and all too willing to judge which recruits meet her standards of patriotism.
Maxwell Seifert is a dashing, self-absorbed Capt. Valentine but too easily ventures into dull caricature as the insane psychiatrist Dr. Mahodan.
Robert Morrissey brings a forceful and limber baritone to the role of mayor, creating a pompous and smarmy politician with a dash of folksy, small-town insularity. He is also splendid as the Allied High Commander, leading a bizarre meeting of generals where each competes to see who can bring the most casualties to the table.
Gerald Frantzen, a co-founder of CFO and well-known to those who regularly attend CFO productions, brings his usual flair and grace to his multiple roles, with a notably nutty stint as a cowboy soldier.
His son, Joseph Frantzen, does a marvelous job as the German soldier captured by Johnny. Frantzen’s German is excellent, and he wonderfully conveys the fear and confusion of a young man caught up in war.
Anthony Baarrese conducts a 15-piece orchestra (hidden at the back of the stage behind an army blanket), and draws out the sometimes thick orchestrations well. The sound covers up the singers too often, but it is glorious nonetheless. The banjo was particularly notable.
Director George Cederquist often lets scenes languish, and the mostly bare stage (there are crates moved about, but little more in stage dressing) is often visually boring, causing the proceedings to seem overly long. There are oddities which are never explained or justified. Why does the mother of Johnny’s girlfriend don a fake beard? Who dreamed up the idea of two priests singing over the dead while licking lollypops?
However, there are some great scenes. When the generals meet, each holds a huge painting of a military leader with only a hole cut out for the singers to push their face through. This was effective and funny, but somehow Cederquist missed the full comedic potential when Johnny breaks in with laughing gas. I was hoping for a “Dr. Stangelove” moment, but instead it was more like the low-budget silliness of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”
The costumes by Shanna Phillipson were superb. She decked out the Statue of Liberty in a simple metallic gown and gave Steyer the perfect wig. Later, Steyer (as the Sister) had a marvelous outfit: half nun, half Auntie Mame. Morrissey as mayor looked politician perfect, and the soliders appeared genuinely authentic.
CFO had a difficult decision to make. Should they present the entire “Johnny Johnson,” which is really too long and dated to be completely effective for today’s audience, or offer a condensed version and leave listeners to wonder what they had missed in the cuts? I believe they were completely correct to offer essentially the complete operetta and let their viewers experience this Chicago premiere in its entirety.
While at times the spoken sections were at odds with the mood of Weill’s underscoring, the final scene remedies this. Johnson is at last perfectly in sync with the delivered text, visual elements, and music. This production comes together for a deeply moving conclusion.