When Paul Green was writing the book and lyrics for Johnny Johnson in 1936, he collaborated with famed German composer Kurt Weill, who wrote the music for the piece. The work was originally done for the Group Theatre in New York, where the play had its Broadway premiere in November of 1936. The Federal Theatre Project then mounted two productions in 1937, in Boston and Los Angeles.
The play has been worked on, enlarged, and re-edited over the years, so when Distinguished Professor of Music Tim Carter of the UNC Department of Music got the play, it was three and a half hours long. Carter has spent six years restoring the play to its original form, and has worked with director Serena Ebhardt, of EbzB Productions, to bring the play into its current configuration. It will now become the script that theaters will use going forward. The play is now two hours and fifteen minutes long, with a massive 25-song score and a cast of eighteen, which has been whittled down considerably from the original.
In mounting Johnny Johnson, the Kenan Theatre Company is working with the Department of Dramatic Art and the Department of Music at UNC. The Department of Dramatic Art has supplied the undergraduate cast, and the Department of Music provides the wonderful 15-member orchestra, under the direction of Evan Feldman, which gives this play its full and magnificent support. The play is being given in the Kenan Theatre of the Department of Dramatic Art. It will run through Monday.
The title character of Johnny Johnson (Andrew Plotnikov) is a stonemason in a small rural town in the US in 1917. We first meet him at a dedication for which he has erected a stone monument to celebrate the town's two hundredth anniversary. But during the unveiling, word comes that the US has declared war on Germany, and the crowd disperses before the dedication is complete; thus the people miss the fact that the monument is a dedication to peace.
Because he is so dedicated to peace, Johnson has a hard time deciding what he wants to do. His fiancée, Minnie Belle Thompkins (Annie Keller), wants him to enlist and fight for his country. He is not so sure. He thinks war is a last resort and that friendship and discussion are the ways to settle disputes. But because of the feeling of the country and of his fiancée, Johnson is finally convinced, and he enters, albeit reluctantly, into service.
Eighteen students make up the cast of the show, and each is given a chance to shine. There are several cameo songs performed, and each of these students had to learn massive amounts of choreography, as the cast is onstage pretty much all the time and the music is front and center. Two of the cameos are indicative of this arrangement. The first is "Aggie's Song," sung by the mother of Johnson's fiancée; Aggie Thompkins is sung by Caitlyn Carmean, who demonstrates just how talented this cast really is. The second, in the second act; is Dr. Mahodan, the head of the hospital's Unit of Psychiatry who is pretty much a nut herself but is required to pull off an amazing song and dance; Emma Gutt handles this role beautifully. All this music – indeed all of Kurt Weill's music – is complicated; and every member of the cast is also a member of the chorus. This team of undergrads is a sharp and dynamic entity, and the group handles both the music and the choreography with grace and style.
Johnson soon realizes the war's futility and massive cost, both in dollars and in lives. He tries to work with both sides to create a cease-fire but is ultimately quashed by the war machine and sent to a mental institution for "Peace Monomania." He loses his place – and he loses his love to Anguish Howington (Byron Frazelle), his high school rival, who cheats his way out of enlisting and steals Minnie Belle from Johnny while he is in the service. Johnny spends ten years in the asylum and comes out a broken man who has lost everything but his ideals. He closes the show with "Johnny's Song," which reiterates his dedication to peace and negotiation.
Kenan Theatre Company's production of Paul Green's Johnny Johnson is a massive undertaking, but these students handle the entire affair with talented precision and spark. The singers are quick and sure, the chorus is exact and harmonious, the orchestra fires on all cylinders, and the overall production is one of high energy and precise execution. Paul Green's message is clean and well-honed, and Kurt Weill's music is well and masterfully handled. Johnny Johnson is one for the books and constitutes an excellent evening's entertainment.
The show continues through Nov. 24. For details, see the sidebar.
And please note there is a free symposium on this musical on Nov. 22 at 2 p.m. For details, click here.