Among the many fine Lost Musicals rediscovered by director Ian Marshall Fisher, surely none is more lost than composer Kurt Weill’s first American show, the surprisingly lyrical Johnny Johnson.
Although first produced in New York in 1936, it scarcely gets a mention in the musical encyclopedias and this starry concert version with a 14-strong cast playing its 56 characters, is the UK premiere using Paul Green’s complete script.
With such a big line-up of singer-actors, delivering both words and music with terrific attack - notably Max Gold as Johnny and James Vaughan in six strong roles - the individual musical honours are few, with the divine Valerie Cutko as a French nurse getting only one song. But the show’s neglect is mainly due to Green’s earnest espousal of the pacifist cause, its eponymous American hero only enlists in support of a ‘war to end wars’ while the body count on the Western Front climbs disastrously and plans for a peacekeeping League are aired in a lunatic asylum.
More play with music than musical, including protracted dialogue sections, the piece still offers a string of tuneful ballads and point numbers, Johnny’s own song later being given a new lyric to become a commercial hit.
Outstanding performances come from Lauren Ward as Johnny’s loving but wayward girl back home, Gay Soper as her mother, treadling her way through a Sewing Machine song, Tim Thomas as a wry old Grandpa and Fabian Hartwell in an unexpected ‘boots and saddle’ Cowboy Song.
I also warmed to Christian Walker in essentially dramatic roles, including a terrified German sniper, and youthful Richard Linnell as a promising juvenile trouper.
Unmissable for all Weill aficionados, the opening performance included a witty introduction by Kim Kowalke who helps run the Kurt Weill Foundation in New York.