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A CurtainUp Review
The Threepenny Opera

Oh the shark has pretty teeth, dear
And he shows ‘em, purly white
Just a jack knife has Macheath, dear
And he keeps it, keeps it way out of sight

— Street Singer
The adventurous and admirable-in-its-mission Marvel Rep Company is presenting an exceedingly well cast, splendidly sung, cleverly staged and directed production. It should please the purists, as well those who we hope will become acquainted with one of the masterpieces of musical theater.

The stunning impression made by the long running (2,611 performances) Off Broadway revival (1954 – 1961) of this Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill modern classic (1928) singspiel helped it to win a lasting and deserved place among the more extraordinary musicals (albeit agitprop) of the 20th century. Notable for its grim and gritty setting in Victorian London, The Threepenny Opera (German: Die Dreigroschenoper), remains empowered by a compelling socio-political consciousness, even a sardonic romantic resonance, that has prompted many of our finest theater artists to collaborate on a number of first class (and some not so first-class) revivals.

Where one might succeed (a New York Shakespeare Festival production in 1976 with Raul Julia as Macheath)another might fail (the production-plagued version on 1989 with Rock star Sting as Macheath and a grossly over-conceptualized Broadway production in 2006 with Alan Cumming). Director Lenny Leibowitz and the Marvel-ites have managed, and without any pretentious/superficial folderol, to expose the dark heart as well as the scorched soul of this ban-and-burn worthy satire inspired by John Gay’s 18th century English ballad opera The Beggar's Opera. The Marvel Rep’s entire season is dedicated to plays that have been either banned and/or burned in their time.

Notwithstanding the raw edge of the text in this translation by Michael Feingold (the same one used for the 1989 revival, The Three Penny Opera is as much a treasury of many of Weill’s most haunting melodies as it is a testament to many of Brecht’s most scathingly anti-establishment views. But beyond and beneath the unsubtly propagandized messages that support every scene and propel every aria, there are those delectable and decadent bursts of outré wickedness that make this show and, in particular, this staging a real blast.

Say what you will about the prevailing social unrest, poverty, and rampant governmental corruption that serve as the frame for this operatic rant on the evils of capitalism, when a production works as it should, and as this one does, there is no problem keeping our focus on the principal characters even as we are bombarded by beggars, bourgeoisie, pimps, and whores, as well as all the sordid/raunchy/raucous denizens that dominate the underworld of Victorian society.

Behind the tattered red curtain that is pulled open and closed on the various locations, it only takes a planked floor, some crates, barrels, a row of hanging exposed light bulbs, and a handsome Victorian sofa in the hands of designer Tijana Bjelajac to create the gloriously grimy locations. The set is well served by Nicholas Houfek’s atmospheric lighting design. And kudos to costume designer Susan Nestor for dressing up or down, as the case may be, all those dandy dregs of society.

The show begins with the street singer (Stephen Sheffer) sitting bare-bum on a barrel supposedly relieving himself and serenading us with the familiar and ever-arresting “The Ballad of Mac the Knife.” With just the right snarl, Sheffer sets the tone and the temperament that follows with each subsequent aria announced with titled banners. What smarmy fun it as Ariela Morgenstern, as prostitute Jenny, beguiles us with her tango duet with Macheath “The Ballad of the Pimp,” and later to sing the plaintive “Solomon’s Song,” reaffirming her conflicted morals.

Insinuatingly untypical is Emma Rosenthal’s performance as Macheath’s blind-sided and criminally abetting bride Polly Peachum who delivers the unforgettable ode, “Pirate Jenny.” Angus Hepburn is giving a wonderfully bellowing and blustery performance as the duplicitous Mr. Peachum. Joy Franz is joyously abrasive, loud, crass as his contemptible, boozing wife Celia Peachum. Her belting (embellished by a sly wink) of “The Ballad of the Prisoner of Sex” is one of the many highlights of this show.

Kelly Pekar is a hoot as not-really-pregnant-after-all Lucy Brown and gets high marks for her impassioned wailing of “The Jealousy Duet,” and “Lucy’s Aria.” Chad Jennings is impressive as Lucy’s father, the corrupt chief of police and Macheath’s childhood friend Tiger Brown. The musical rests, however, on the devilish performance and sinister persona invoked by Matt Faucher whose resounding voice delivers chills singing Macheath’s bitterly sardonic view of life “The Ballad of Living.” and “Cry from the Grave.” The show ends with a brilliantly ironic climax as Macheath asks for “Everyone’s Forgiveness.”

What is there to forgive after seeing close to the best The Threepenny Opera I’ve seen ever seen? How auspicious that: An announcement was made at the performance I attended on February 10 that it was Bertolt Brecht’s birthday. What a treat to have the score played so expertly and with such gusto by seven superb musicians. In addition, and not incidentally, it was wonderful to hear so much excellent singing without electronic enhancement in the small TBG Theater.

The Threepenny Opera
By Bertolt Brecht (lyrics) and Kurt Weill (music)
English translation by Michael Feingold
Directed by Lenny Leibowitz

Cast: Claire Duncan (Flich/Vixen/Ensemble), Matt Faucher (Macheath), Joy Franz (Celia Peachum), Robert A.K. Gonyo (Reverend Kimball/Policeman/Ensemble), Angus Hepburn (Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum), Chat Jennings (Tiger Brown), George Michael Kennedy (Ed/Ensemble), Chiara Klein (Dolly/Ensemble), Ariela Morgenstern (Jenny Diver), Damian Norfleet (Sawtooth Bob/Smith), Kelly Pekar (Lucy Brown), Gavin Price (Walt, Policeman/Ensemble), Mike Rosengarten (Crookfinger Jack/Ensemble), Emma Rosenthal (Polly Peachum), Stephen Sheffer (Street Singer/Matt of theMint/Ensemble), Loralee Tyson (Betty/Ensemble), Jill Usdan (Whore/Ensemble), Kevin B. Windbold (Jimmy/Ensemble).
Scenic Design: Tijana Bjelajac
Costume Design: Susan Nester
Lighting Design: Nicholas Houfek
Musical Direction: Kevin Winebold
Sound Design: Howard Fredricks
Choreography: Katie Ostrowski
Running Time: 3 hours including intermission
Marvell Rep, at the TBG Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, 3rd Floor
(212) 518-6085
Tickets $25.00
From: 02/06/12
Opening: 02/11/12
Ends: 02/29/12
Note: The Threepenny Opera will be performed in rotating repertory with Professor Bernhardi through 02/29/12
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 02/10/12
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