THEATRE / Johnny not-so-good: Nick Kimberley on the British premiere of Kurt Weill's Johnny Johnson, at Rudolf Steiner House

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The Independent Culture
After Kurt Weill fled from Europe to the United States the first theatre work he composed was Johnny Johnson, premiered in 1936. If the work's dramatic style is essentially American - spoken text, sometimes underscored, leading into more or less spectacular numbers - the musical language is recognisably that of The Threepenny Opera and The Seven Deadly Sins. The meeting of the two idioms is sometimes bewildering but always fascinating.

Reference works - we have not had much else to go on - usually label the work 'pacifist', but it's a fatally compromised pacifism. Johnny Johnson, all-American Everyman, wants the United States to stay out of the First World War, but Woodrow Wilson's 'This is the war to end all wars' convinces him to sign up and change history's course. He fails, and pays a high price for his ideals: after spending time in a lunatic asylum, he is seen walking the streets of his home town, ostensibly selling non-aggressive toys, effectively reduced to beggardom. It's a moot point whether Weill's music mitigates or exacerbates the pessimism of Paul Green's libretto, but Johnny Johnson can hardly be said to have lost its pertinence.

A Moveable Feast, the music theatre group of Trinity College of Music, claimed that last week's staging at London's Rudolf Steiner House was the British premiere of the complete work, for which the company deserves gratitude. But the priorities of student performance are not always those of a professional production, and there was much to depress an audience eager to see what Johnny Johnson had to offer.

The two performances were conducted and directed by Rhonda Kess, an estimable Weill interpreter who drew careful performances from the orchestral players. The sounds Weill conjured from banjo and strings, saxes and percussion, had a characteristic pungency which would no doubt be more evident from a professional ensemble. Yet it is still exciting to hear Weill's essentially European ironies adapt to the less ambiguous demands of the American musical.

There was less to say for the vocal and dramatic contributions. The biggest mistake was to insist on bogus American accents. If seasoned professionals in English National Opera's staging of Weill's Street Scene sounded clumsy, what chance for performers at the beginning of their careers? Ironically, the best enunciation came from Sjaak van der Bent, whose forthright tunefulness had real flair. As the Statue of Liberty - Paul Green's libretto comfortably embraced both fantasy and realism - Ruth Halvani revealed a luxurious, almost contralto timbre, although the breath control was wayward. Several others were energetic and eager, but too much was done at top volume and high speed, while the staging had moments to make even Linda Snell blush: flimsy designs, clumsy scene changes and routinised gestures produced a sense of anticlimax. No doubt the students relished the chance to get their teeth into something that has a feeling of urgent modernity. With luck we won't have to wait too long for a production that captures that urgency.