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A CurtainUp DC Review
The Threepenny Opera

Life's a bitch and then you die.— The Ensemble
The Threepenny Opera
(Photo: )
Shows about the inequities caused by money especially for those who have to resort to callous and unsavory means to get it are not new. Among the classics of this genre is The Threepenny Opera, a scathing indictment of capitalism and the corruption it encourages, written by Bertolt Brecht with a memorable and enduring score by Kurt Weill. The satirical musical's premier in Berlin in 1928 was prescient given the world-wide financial collapse the following year.

London's Donmar Warehouse in 1994, an era dominated by the get-rich-quick and damn- the-poor policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, presented an updated adaptation of the Brecht/Weill satire by Robert David MacDonald (book) and Jeremy Sams (lyrics). That version is now playing at Washington's Signature Theatre.

The mood is set in the theater's lobby where the walls are covered with graffiti, a union jack is painted on the floor, a photo of Queen Elizabeth II is surrounded by flowers – presumably a reference to the brouhaha that followed the death of Princess Diana. Inside the theater, scenic designer Misha Kachman has gone to town — the slums to be exact. A reminder for the audience that not everyone lives by their wits and on the street, that there is a segment of society that enjoys capitalism, a ticker with (presumably) stock prices runs along the rear of the stage. It is a very effective set.

Also creating the right tone are Frank Labovitz's costumes — racy lacy underpinnings for the prostitutes, prim and proper suits for those who seek respectability. Music director Gabriel Mangiante's 8-piece orchestra gives Kurt Weill's melodies their due.

The show begins with "The Flick Knife Song," sung slowly and with mesmerizing clarity by Natascia Diaz as Jenny, a prostitute and former lover of Macheath (Mitchell Jarvis). Diaz's performance is the highlight of this production. She's beautiful and has a strong voice with exquisite diction, timing and phrasing. Her "Love Duet" and "Pimp's Tango" sung and danced with Macheath is suitably lusty. What does not quite work is Jarvis's Macheath. He displays plenty of anger but lacks the charm and wiliness that would make you believe he could wiggle out of any ominous situation. When he is let out of prison with a "golden parachute" suspending disbelief is a challenge.

Comic relief is in good supply when, in the second act, Lucy Brown, one of Macheath's wives visits him in prison. The part is played in drag by Rick Hammerly who is well known in Washington for his Helen Hayes award winning performance in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. He's a hoot.

Donna Migliaccio's Mrs Peachum is a wonderful vignette of the alcoholic wife of a pimp. She is constantly hoping for respectability. As her daughter and Macheath's wife, Erin Driscoll looks the part (thanks to costumer Frank Labovitz) but her voice is shrill and grating. The rest of the cast is adequate but their attempts at English accents are not successful. Director/choreographer Matthew Gardiner has encouraged many good moments from the ensemble but this production belongs to Natascia Diaz and Rick Hammerly.

  The Threepenny Opera

By Bertolt Brecht

Music by Kurt Weill

English translation (from German) of dialogue by Robert David Macdonald
English translation (from German) of lyrics by Jeremy Sams
Direction and choreography by Matthew Gardiner
Music Direction by Gabriel Mangiante
Scenic Design by Misha Kachman
Costume Design by Frank Labovitz
Lighting Design by Colin K. Bills
Sound Design by Lane Elms
Cast: Natascia Diaz (Jenny); Bobby Smith (Mr. Peachum); Donna Migliaccio (Mrs. Peachum); Erin Driscoll (Polly Peachum); Mitchell Jarvis (Macheath); John Leslie Wolfe (Tiger Brown); Rick Hammerly (Lucy Brown/Ned); Paul Scanlan (Matt of the Mint); Sean Fri (Crook-Finger Jake); Ryan Sellars (Chainsaw Bob); Aaron Bliden (Filch/Weeping-Willow Walter); Jessica Thorne (Jimmy/Nelly); Thomas Adrian Simpson (Smith/Reverend Kimball); Jamie Eacker (Betty and Dance Captain); Katherine Renee Turner (Vixen).

Musicians: Gabriel Mangiante, Jacob Kidder, Ben Bokor, Ed Walters, Chris Walker, Brent Madsen, Adam McColley, Gerry Kunkel, Joe McCarthy.

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes with one intermission.

Musical Numbers:
Act One
Overture/Orchestra; The Flick Knife Song/Jenny; Mr. Peachum's Morning Chorale/Mr. Peachum; Kids Today/ Mr. and Mrs. Peachum; Wedding Song/Gang Song/Macheath's Gang; Pirate Jenny/Polly; The Cannon Song/Macheath, Tiger Brown and Macheath's Gang; Love Duet/Macheath and Polly; Barbara's Song/Polly; First Threepenny Finale/Polly, Mr. Peachum and Mrs. Peachum; Melodrama/Polly's Song/McHeath and Polly; The Ballad of Sexual Imperative/Mrs. Peachum; A Pimp's Tango/Macheath and Jenny; Second Threepenny Finale (What Keeps a Man Alive)/Company.

Act Two
The Ballad of Easy Life/Macheath; Jealousy Duet/Polly and Lucy; The Song of Inadequacy/Mr. Peachum and Mrs. Peachum; Socrates Song/Jenny; A Call from the Grave/Machath; The Ballad in which Macheath Begs All Men's Forgiveness/Macheath; Third Threepenny Finale/Company.

Signature Theater, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, Va. 2206;; tickets from $40; 703-573-7328; April 22 to June 1, 2014.

Review by Susan Davidson based on April 27, 2014 performance.

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