The Arena Stage's 1983 production of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's "Happy End" will launch a new PBS series on "America's Musical Theater" tonight (10 p.m., Channel 26; simulcast on WETA-FM, 90.9.)
It will be the first of three PBS productions by composers who walked a stylistic tightrope between pop and classical styles. The other two are Marc Blitzstein's "The Cradle Will Rock" and Scott Joplin's "Treemonisha," in the Houston Grand Opera production, starring Carmen Balthrop, which played here on its national tour.
All three works have been neglected; they are not really commercial a la "Show Boat" or "My Fair Lady," and they fall well outside the stylistic boundaries acceptable to the mainstream operatic audience. But all are works of historic interest. The two seen here have the best productions one is likely to encounter in a lifetime of theater-going. The main problem with "Happy End" is that it constantly reminds you of other shows that are better in one way or another. Its plot, dealing with an improbable romance between a master criminal and a woman evangelist for the Salvation Army, inevitably brings to mind "Guys and Dolls" and Shaw's "Major Barbara," but it lacks (no doubt deliberately) the Broadway polish of the one show and the witty intellectual dimensions of the other.
Its gritty songs, at their best, call to mind the same collaborators' more popular "Threepenny Opera," and so does its curious mixture of underworld atmosphere with soft-core Marxist preaching -- notably the finale, when one character proclaims that "Robbin' a bank's no crime compared to ownin' one." Its plot is absurdly complicated, partly for satirical purposes and partly to allow room for a number of show-stoppers; it's the kind of show where nobody minds if it gets stopped.
The Arena production takes the material on its own terms, adopting a tongue-in-cheek style that borrows largely from the mannerisms of silent films and early talkies. In the generally well-chosen cast, particularly good work is done by Casey Biggs in the romantic lead and Richard Bauer as the enigmatically menacing Dr. Nakamura. Marilyn Caskey is sweetly effective as the evangelist "Hallelujah Lil," and her singing of "Surabaya Johnny" and the "Sailors' Tango" can almost make you forget what the late Lotte Lenya was able to do with these songs.