"Turr-able, Turr-able, It's Awful to Think About"
- Paul Green
Cheryl Crawford, one of the 3 founders of the Group Theatre, paired up Paul Green (who wrote the Group’s first play The House of Connelly) and Kurt Weill (the acclaimed European composer in his first American composition). The play, by Paul Green with music by Kurt Weill, is a somewhat convoluted story of a young innocent boy who gets enlists in WW1 as he believes it is the “war to end all wars.”
The current version presented by the Kenan Theatre Co, UNC Dept of Dramatic Arts and Music, and the Institute for Arts and Humanities is billed as the “world premiere” of the new, more coherent, version of Johnny Johnson, revised by Dr. Tim Carter, who claims to have spent 6 years on the project. As he authored the poorly written tome that was published by the Kurt Weill Fdnt and still for sale at $400 a copy - it’s no surprise he is on Weill’s side. That’s a shame, as despite how gorgeous and memorable the music can be, it’s Green script that is the key.
Weill’s songs are beautifully composed, but they add little, if anything, to the plot. This new version includes songs that were originally cut by the creators before ever being produced (further cuts were wisely made by the experts in the Group Theatre), and after hearing the added songs, it’s clear why they were cut. Dr. Carter has found that he needs to add every scrap of music back into the play while cutting 2/3 of the dialogue. Instead, he’s inserted a One-Act by Green called Roses for Johnny Johnson and it sadly becomes the main bulk of the script. While the One-Act has many charms, it comes at the expense of the overall storytelling.
It was priceless to see so many ‘deleted’ scenes from Johnny Johnson, just as a theatre-lover, but for the average attendee, it provided a very warped version of the play. As it’s unlikely the average attendee will seek out the published script (Samuel French/Regroup Theatre), THIS production is sadly the only version of Johnny Johnson they will know. Like the brilliant novel that is poorly adapted for the screen, those who haven’t read the book may wonder why those that have are shaking their fists at the screen.
Johnny Johnson is a long play (or musical in this case), but adding unnecessary songs and plot in exchange for character development keeps the actors from developing 3 dimensional characters and keeps the audience from caring. Dr. Carter is clearly trying to make a name for himself by revising the script and including all the rare scraps he found at the expense of the play. “An unheard stanza? An unseen scene? Throw it in!” That seems to be Carter’s idea. If this is the story he wants to tell, he should write his own play - with music, instead of butchering Green's script.
While it’s extremely difficult to direct a play with such a huge cast, Selena Ebhardt fails on so many levels. I’d say the main problem is script analysis, but when the majority of the script is cut, it makes some sense. When presenting such a monumental production, you have great responsibility on your shoulders. The show went off, but almost every decision, being fight choreography, the blinding all white set and blocking were a travesty. It’s actually hard to imagine them being worse.) Minny Belle gets proposed to and keeps on singing without even slightly acknowledging it? Changing Capt Valentine to a flaming 'bisexual' for no reason an in conflict to the script! The soldiers on the front lines are shouting and dancing, even though a sniper is shooting at them? Changing the meaning of the word ‘Nuts’ to mean testicles instead of lunatic is just sloppy. These are just a few examples that should have been fixed with a minor note from even the most novice director. All this aside, it was an undergraduate production. I don’t want to point out any performance faults as it should be a safe space for the students to learn. I feel it’s necessary to applaud the professional work of Kyle Strickenberger (Sgt. Jackson/Sniper) and Emma Gutt (Dr. Mahodan). As it’s a student production, I also feel it important to point out how mic’ed everyone was. In such a small theatre, and even with a demanding score, it was entirely unnecessary and harmful. It’s a shame the UNC is telling their students this acceptable behavior for an actor. It is not.
Like the ‘special edition’ dvd of a movie, I’m glad I got to see the “deleted scenes”. Just the same, it’s very clear why they were scrapped. Hopefully, you will never have to sit through this perversion of the show.