'Johnny' on the spot

Come let us hymn a hymn to peace,

Jollily, merrily, we will sing,

Loudly proclaiming wars shall cease,

Hark ye, how the bells go ting-ling-ling...

The haunting round "Hymn to Peace" opens Southern Oregon University's production of the 1936 Paul Green-Kurt Weill musical "Johnny Johnson," serving not only as a prelude to one man's quest to end war but as a reminder, 75 years later, how far society's fallen from the mark.

Green based his World War I-era play on Jaroslav Hasek's novel "The Good Soldier Svejk" and embodied a strong anti-war message in a succession of 13 expressionistic scenes, with some 25 accompanying songs — ballads, marches, hymns. In forthright fashion, Green declared: "The story of the legend — that is what I like to call the play — is the musical biography of a common soldier whose natural common sense runs counter to a sophisticated civilization.

"The first act is a comedy, the second a tragedy, and the third a satire. That sounds crazy, and maybe I can't get away with it, but that is what I have tried to write."

It attained 68 performances then, but when revived in 1971, managed one only.

Green gained a reputation as a "playwright of the real South," and in 1925 he won the Pulitzer Prize for his so-called symphonic drama "In Abraham's Bosom," depicting the plight of African-Americans in the South.

In "Johnny Johnson," the title character, an ideal Pacifist, signs up to do his part in the war to end all wars when the U.S. enters the fray in 1917. But he must leave his sweetheart, Minny Belle Thompkins (played by the excellent Danielle Chaves), behind.

He manages to bring the war to a temporary halt when he sprays a meeting of Allied generals with laughing gas, but it's no laughing matter when the generals recover and Johnny is sent to an asylum for 10 years.

When Johnny returns home, he find his sweetheart is married to a capitalist. He becomes a toymaker, but in a nod to his ideals, refuses to make tin soldiers.

In the SOU production, which opened Friday, the role of Johnny Johnson is undertaken by a sprightly trio: Chris Carwithen, Blaine Johnston and Scott Scholes, each portraying different periods in his life. Director Randall Stuart has lengthened the first act to 1 hour 20 minutes, followed by a 15-minute intermission, with a 45-minute second act.

Stuart notes that the production brings parity to female and male casting, while the scenic design of Sean O'Skea imparts "a bracing visual beauty" with the help of a cleverly constructed bridge, combined with the projection of drop-down posters and lovely images, such as the red poppy of Flanders. Sometimes we see a landscape or a shattered church.

The many diverse roles in the play are performed with unflagging zeal by a very talented ensemble.

And then there is the music. The director speaks of "sensing the ghosts swirling out of the brass, soaring out of the woodwinds, vibrating in the profound rhythms of the timpani, declared on the keyboards of the organ, plunked through the strings of the banjo."

All praise then to the orchestra under the baton of Jennifer Schloming, the musical director, herself on keyboards, with Vicki Purslow (reeds), Colleen Callan (trombone), Bill Leonhart (banjo, strings), Bruce Dresser, Jon Janakes and Bradley Saunders (trumpet), and Reed Bentley (percussion).

The costume design by Kaylyn Kilkuskie, a junior at SOU, is inventive and particularizes the military differences, with some of the wildest hats you can imagine. But as a Brit myself, I got a kick out of "The Tea Song," depicting the Tommies in the trenches in France in a cleverly devised set by O'Skea.

As choreographer, Jim Giancarlo's contribution is invaluable in so many areas, and the sound design by Robert Erickson is commendable in the orchestral and vocal balance it achieves. Chris Sackett, too, in his lighting design produces some vivid effects.

The second act opens with a poignant poem:

Soldiers, soldiers,

sleep softly beneath the sky,

Soldiers, soldiers,

tomorrow under earth you lie.

"Johnny Johnson" is exceptional entertainment and continues at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Feb. 28. Call 541-552-6348.

Robert H. Miller is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at RobertHMiller@ashlandcreek.net.

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