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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Threepenny Opera

By David Avery

I'm always delighted to meet one of the charming wives of my good friend Mac.
---Police Chief Tiger Brown
Erst Kommt das Fressen, dan Kommt die Moral. (Food comes first, then morality.)
---Bertolt Brecht
Bjorn Johnson (Macheath) and Rebecca Metz (Lucy Brown) in <i>The Threepenny Opera</i>border=
Bjorn Johnson (Macheath) and Rebecca Metz (Lucy Brown) in "The Threepenny Opera"

Since The Threepenny Opera has been reviewed several times in recent seasons, I refer you to the links below for background details about this popular and often revived story set in Victorian London and revolving around a dastardly murderer and thief and his scret bride Polly Peachum.

The Open Fist's prorduction features Bjorn Johnson as Macheath, Josie Gundy as Polly (Josie Gundy) and David Castellani as her father who with his wife (Pam Heffler), runs a company that acts as a sort of beggar's union. Joe Hulser plays the police chief Tiger Brown who makes the Peachums' attempt to end their daughter's wedded bliss difficult as MacHeath has him in his pocket Tiger Brown's daughter Lucy who has a few secrets of her own is played by Rebecca Metz.

Brecht's show is much darker than the earlier and much lighter version by John Gay and the translation used by the Open Fist Theatre definitely centers squarely on the bleaker and scatological elements of the show. The lyrics aren't smoothed over and the sentiments of avarice and betrayal are in full force.

R. Charles Otte has staged the show with a vaudeville/music hall) theme, starting with a bed sheet curtain with "Threepenny Opera" haphazardly splashed across it to obscure the stage. Scene changes are noted with signboards, heavy makeup is used, and harsh spotlights pick out the soloists. Different locations are suggested by simple prop placement. The single basic set is dominated by a bar, which gives rise to the question of what a bar is doing in the Old Bailey. It's an interesting touch that reminds the audience both of the setting and the time when it was written. Otte has also adds some nice comic moments for Lucy and Polly during which they hash out their problems using dolls as mouthpieces.

Johnson's Macheath is a bit problematic because he hasn't quite found the balance between charming and dangerous. The audiences are supposed to see Macheath with all his faults, and be charmed by him anyway, but this Macheath doesn't quite win us over before shifting into thug mode.

Another problem is that many of the fourth wall breaking scenes are a bit abrupt and rushed. Instead of coming across as quick asides to the audience, they tend to break the flow of the action. For the most part, however, the satirical characters a done justice. Gundy's Polly is a spoiled child of plenty who is more than happy to become head of a thieves gang, Castellani's Mr. Peachum is suitably mercenary. Hicks' Mrs. Peachum is a woman with a past putting her daughter's social and financial prospects before love. Hulser's Tiger Brown is the epitome of the corrupt policeman. Perhaps the most "noble" character in the play is Jenny, the spurned prostitute -- at least she is motivated by emotion rather than avarice.

There is some impressive singing from Jimmy Kieffer ("The Ballad of Mac the Knife"), Pam Heffler ("Ballad of Sexual Imperative"), and Tish Hicks ("The Song of Solomon"). When the entire cast performs together ("What Keeps a Man Alive?" and "Deus Ex Machina") the show really soars. While all the actors are competent singers, there are a few American Idol moments. Some of the difficulty probably lies in the fact that the live musicians are hidden away in the far back of the stage which often makes it difficult to hear the music.

Kitty McNamee's choreography has the players moving at times like clockwork marionettes, further supporting the mechanizing effects of society. In "A Pimp's Tango," Macheath, Jenny, and several whores perform a very complicated tango ballet that is well executed and a delight to see.

Overall, the cast and crew support Brecht and Weill's material well -- and that material has as much to say to audiences now as it did when it was performed for the first time.

On a sad note, this is the Open Fist's last production at this location; their space has been sold to make way for housing development. The building (a 3000 square foot Quonset hut) has an interesting history and has been a performance venue on an off for a great deal of the 20th century. It's a real tragedy that good companies like Open Fist are being forced to relocate due to rising real estate prices.

The Threepenny Opera at the Williamstown Theatre Festival
The ThreePenny Opera at The Cocteau Repertory Company, Off-Broadway

The Threepenny Opera
Libretto by Bertolt Brecht
Music by Kurt Weil
Book translated by Robert David MacDonald
Lyrics translated by Jeremy Sams
Directed by R. Charles Otte
Cast: David Castellani (Mr. Peachum), Bruce Dickinson (Beggar, Jimmy, Constable Bruce), Josie Gundy (Polly Peachum), Pam Heffler (Mrs. Peachum), Tish Hicks (Jenny Diver), Joe Hulser (Tiger Brown), Bjorn Johnson (Macheath), Will Kepper (Matt of the Mint), Jimmy Kieffer (Narrator, Weeping Willow Walt), Olivia Killingsworth (Beggar, Nelly), Aaron Lyons (Beggar, Sawsall Bob, Constable Smith), Maia Madison (Beggar, Rev. Kimball, Vixen), Debra Mayer (Beggar, Dolly), Dave Metz (Filch, Ned), Rebecca Metz (Lucy Brown), Heather Tyson (Beggar Betty), Alex Wright (Crook-Fingered Jake)
Scenic Design: Bill Eigenbrodt and Meghan Rogers
Costume Design: A. Jeffrey Schoenberg
Lighting Design: R. Charles Otte
Sound Design: Peter Carlstedt
Choreography: Kitty McNamee
Musical Direction: Dean Mora
Musicians: Ian Dahlberg (Flute, Clarinet, Soprano Sax, Alto Sax), Andrew Hamilton (Trumpet), Justin Kirk (Trombone), Jack Lees (Drums, Percussion), Dean Mora (Keyboards), Daniel Purisch (Clarinet, Soprano Sax, Tenor Sax), Alex Wright (Banjo, Guitar)
Running time: approximately 2 hours, 40 minutes (including a 15 minute intermission)
Open Fist Theatre Company, 1625 N. La Brea Ave, Los Angeles, 90028
From 4/30/05 through 6/12/05
Friday and Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 7pm
All tickets $20.00, Pay-What-You-Can on May 8th & 15th
Reviewed by David Avery based on 4/30/05 performance
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • The Ballad of Mac the Knife/Narrator
  • Morning Song/Mr. Peachum
  • Kids Today/Mr. Peachum, Mrs. Peachum
  • Wedding Song for the Less Well Off/Matt, Jake, Jimmy, Walt, Bob, Ned
  • Pirate Jenny/Polly
  • Cannon Song/Macheath, Tiger Brown, The Gang
  • Liebeslied/Macheath, Polly
  • Barbara Song/Polly
  • First Finale: The Uncertainty of the Human Condition/Polly, Mr. Peachum, Mrs. Peachum
  • Ballad of Sexual Imperative/Mrs. Peachum
  • Polly's Little Song/Polly
Act Two
  • A Pimps Tango/Macheath, Jenny
  • Ballad of the Easy Life/Macheath
  • Jealousy Duet/Lucy, Polly
  • Second Threepenny Finale: What Keeps a Man Alive?/Macheath, Jenny, Mrs. Peachum, Cast
  • Ballad of Sexual Imperative (reprise)/Mrs. Peachum
  • The Song of Inadequacy/Mr. Peachum
  • The Song of Solomon/Jenny
  • A Call from the Grave/Macheath
  • Ballad in Which Macheath Begs All Men's Forgiveness/Macheath
  • Third Act Finale: Deus Ex Machina/Cast
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