Kenan Theatre Company guest director Serena Ebhardt and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill music professor Dr. Tim Carter succeeded beyond our already high expectations in bringing Paul Green and Kurt Weill’s 1936 production of Johnny Johnson, to the stage in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in the UNC Center for Dramatic Art. The show is a first-class smash. This presentation will set the standard for future productions as well as establish this script over the other versions lying around. Its anti-war theme is developed early on and just keeps on building till the last song, “Johnny’s Song,” is sung.
The story line has Johnny, a monument maker, being persuaded, eventually, by his girlfriend, to enlist in the Army when America joins the war in Europe in 1917. It is not a happy decision for Johnny, who is inept as a soldier, pacifist and strong-willed. His adventures and misadventures keep him in hot water with the brass; his heroics are misinterpreted and eventually he is discharged less than honorably. In the meantime, the girlfriend has married his rival and life pretty much falls apart for him. All of this is done with musical and dance accompaniment and hilarious anecdotes, reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin, whose famous “Shoulder Arms” is played in part as prologue to the show.
The song-and-dance routines involve mind-bending bodily postures emulating the wounded, and some very clever marches that manage to be whimsical and military at once. Portions of the story as well are told using projections from silent films and other art work.
Eighteen actors played 68 roles, all dressed in khaki uniforms and using over-dress costumes to identify their various parts. Costumer Sam Kate Toney has done a remarkable job of keeping it simple and expressing individual character. Choreographer Heather Tatreau has devised extraordinary, stylized dances and movements that are both heart-wrenching and hilarious, and some otherwise unreferenced stories are told within the frame of dance as well.
Set designer Julia Warren has erected a structure that serves well as Chickamauga Hill, a cannon emplacement, a church, and several different rooms, all with minimal effort to effect, and a clear understanding of their purpose. Rolling pieces establish spaces and also carry props, making for efficiency in scene changes.
Projection designer Cameron Kania places important elements of the storytelling in appropriate spots at appropriate times, enhancing the sense of technical ensemble this piece requires. The obvious teamwork, artistic, mechanical, performance, and musical is amply demonstrated. The use of a full 15-piece orchestra, under the direction of Dr. Evan Feldman, to support the cast and fill the gaps rounds out the extreme professionalism that is the hallmark of this show.
Director Serena Ebhardt has woven a formidable array of talent, discipline, and community to create this enviable feat of theater. The UNC student presentation of Johnny Johnson is wonderfully understated, showing the grit, determination, and integrity of the title character — even in his final duress. Andrew Plotnikov is the perfect model for Johnny Johnson.
Annie Keller gives us Minny Belle Thompkins, Johnny’s would-be girlfriend, who dumps him for a guy who lies to get out of the Army. Minny Belle’s absence of character is hard to accept given Keller’s beautiful voice, which soars operatically.
Among other roles, Emma Gutt glistens as the mad psychiatrist, Dr. Mahodan, so crippled with her own psychoses that she cannot keep her body in control; and Gutt creates postures and faces that seem impossible. Rachel Tuton’s marvelous voice soothes the ailing Johnny, as the French Nurse, and her accent is endearing. Caitlyn Carmean brings a gripping pathos to her role as Aggie Thompkins, Minny Belle’s mother.
Captain Valentine is simply divine in the hands of Cressler Peele, who camps up the officer’s character in great style. Matt Verner brings an appropriate priggishness to a West Point lieutenant who shows his true colors in the end. To pick out just a few like this almost does an injustice to the rest of the cast, whose performances were all delightful and heartfelt.
That is the hard side of reviewing such a well-executed show. Our hats are off to the entire cast, and we fervently wish Johnny Johnson could have a much longer run. This is the premier performance of this version of Johnny Johnson, courageously brought to us by the Kenan Theatre Company and UNC-Chapel Hill’s Department of Dramatic Art, Department of Music, and Institute for the Arts and Humanities. It is a play with music that deserves to be seen by more audiences during the centennial of World War I — especially by people who enjoy theater and seek peace.
SECOND OPINION: Nov. 21st Raleigh, NC CVNC review by the Alan R. Hall: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=7088; Nov. 20th Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel (student newspaper) preview by the Sindhu Chidambaram : http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2014/11/kenan-theatre-company-lauds-veterans and Jan. 8th preview by the Karishma Patel: http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2014/01/tim-carter-feature-0109. Nov. 19th Chapel Hill, NC WUNC/91.5 FM interview with director Serena Ebhardt, UNC music professor Dr. Tim Carter, and actors Andrew Plotnikov and Kyle Strickenberger, conducted by Frank Stasio for “The State of Things”: http://wunc.org/post/chapel-hill-playwrights-social-commentary-world-war-i; Nov. 14th Durham, NC Herald-Sun preview by Cliff Bellamy: http://www.heraldsun.com/lifestyles/entertainment/x205865692/In-another-time-UNC-presents-restored-version-of-WWI-musical (Note: You must subscribe to read this article); Oct. 5th Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh preview by the BWW News Desk: http://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/UNC-Presents-World-Premiere-of-New-JOHNNY-JOHNSON-Musical-1120-24-20141005; and (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Nov. 14th Triangle Review preview by Martha Keravuori and Chuck Galle, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2014/11/johnny-johnson-is-a-harsh-reminder-that-the-war-to-end-all-wars-didnt/.)
The Kenan Theatre Company, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Departments of Dramatic Art and Music, and the UNC Institute for the Arts and Humanities present JOHNNY JOHNSON at 5 p.m. Nov. 24 in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the UNC campus.
TICKETS: $10 ($5 students with ID).
BOX OFFICE: http://drama.unc.edu/johnnyjohnson/.
UNC Department of Dramatic Art: http://drama.unc.edu/.
UNC Department of Music: http://music.unc.edu/.
UNC Institute for the Arts and Humanities: http://iah.unc.edu/.
Johnny Johnson (1936 Broadway musical) http://www.kwf.org/kurt-weill/weill-works/28-weill-works/weill-works/160-j6main (Kurt Weill Foundation for Music), http://www.ibdb.com/show.php?id=4921 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnny_Johnson_%28musical%29 (Wikipedia).
Kurt Weill (German composer, 1900-50) http://www.kwf.org/ (Kurt Weill Foundation for Music), http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=7112 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurt_Weill (Wikipedia).
Paul Green (Lillington, NC-born dramatist and lyricist, 1894-1981) http://www.paulgreen.org/ (official website), http://www.paulgreen.org/foundation.html (Paul Green Foundation), http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=8043 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Green_%28playwright%29 (Wikipedia).
Serena Ebhardt (director) http://www.ebzb.org/serena/ (EbzB Productions bio).
A Year-Long Conversation: World War I — The Legacy: http://iah.unc.edu/news/newsarchive/2013/WWI (UNC Institute for the Arts and Humanities).
Martha Keravuori is a life-long theater artist — an actress, director, and stage manager — in North Carolina, around the country, and overseas. She has a theater degree from UNC-Greensboro, and has been active in the arts in Raleigh for the past 40 years. Martha is the retired executive director of the North Carolina Theatre Conference. Chuck Galle returned to Raleigh last year after a 17-year absence. He was active in community theater for many years, and directed the troupe of maximum-security inmates at Raleigh’s Central Prison known as the Central Prison Players. In New England, he performed on stage, on TV, and in films. He is the author of Stories I Never Told My Daughter — An Odyssey, which can be ordered on his website: http://www.chuckgalle.com/. Chuck Galle and Martha Keravuori review theater for Boom! Magazine of Cary. Click here to read more of their reviews for Boom! Magazine and here to read more of their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.