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A CurtainUp Review
The Threepenny Opera
By Elyse Sommer
Director Scott Elliott's unrepentantly cheeky take on this classic musical may have a few too many new-fangled ideas to please Threepenny fans with definite expectations. Though I'm not a stickler for being true to specific conventions, I'll confess that I wasn't bowled over by many of the director's choices; nor was I impressed by Wallace Shawn's overseasoning his translation with profanities, like a cook with a heavy hand on the salt shaker. The profanity a minute approach seems to serve little purpose except to support Elliott's apparent determination to create an in-your-face punk opera.
As always, the raw, intense music with Weill's original orchestrations is never less than wonderful, even during the meandering first act, with its drawn-out Mac-Polly nuptial celebration. However, when the production sings, it can't help but soar -- and once you buy into the idea of the homoerotic twist to "the overwhelming power of sex" (per Mrs. Peachum's show stopping ballad), this Threepenny IS raunchily and eccentrically gay in every sense. And here's something Threepenny newbies put off by the word "opera", should bear in mind: This is the opera that seeded the much -recorded hit (e.g. Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darrin) "Mac the Knife" which they'll undoubtedly know and will find themselves humming as they exit Studio 54 and for days after.
Dominating the twenty-member cast, most of whom double as policemen and beggars, is Alan Cumming as Macheath. The actor, who famously originated the MC in the re-envisioned Cabaret that had a successful run in this same theater, goes all-out to create Mac like no other Mac. He plays sinister more convincingly than irresistibly charming and his singing is more adequate than outstanding, yet he is a distinctive and riveting presence.
Probably the cast member whose appearance is awaited with the greatest anticipation is Cindy Lauper, the multi-platinum pop recording star, who is making her Broadway debut as the stone-hearted whore Jenny. The audience doesn't have long to wait to see how she does. As soon as the stage which is bare except for a few upstage clothes racks, fills up with performers entering from both aisles Lauper takes the lead with a creditable Lenya-esque rendition of the "Song of the Extraordinary Crimes of Mac the Knife." Given Lauper's star power, her not coming front and center again until the second act might best be explained by a quote attributed to Lotte Lenya who's still regarded as the seminal Jenny: "If Jenny ever becomes a major role, then there's something goddam wrong with the whole production." Still, Lenya did at one point in the play's history sing the big "Pirate Jenny" number and many fans of the show consider it to be her song even though this is not the first production to give it to Polly.
When Lauper does come back on she gets another star turn with" Solomon's Song." When she speaks, it's pure NooYawk. To add to the international flavor of this cast's dialogue there's the Brit-speak of Jim Dale's delightful Mr. Peachum. The still elastic-bodied Dale also provides the best showcase for choreographer Aszure Barton. And he's a dandy singer as well.
While Nellie McKay is a pretty and sweet voiced Polly, her stage mum, Ana Gasteyer, makes hers and the other female voices small by comparison. Gasteyer, is a big, belter who could probably be heard loud and clear even without modern amplification. Her solo of "The Ballad of the Overwhelming Power of Sex" is a well-deserved show stopper. Her belting prowess aside she has a knack for wry comic delivery. She and Dale have the chemistry to bring the Peachums to rich comic life, more than any other performer on this stage.
Christopher Innvar, a solid musical stage performer, is a fine Tiger Brown. He manages to bring off that vaudevillian golden boy finale without embarrassing himself too much. Brian Charles Rooney insures that Lucy's true sex a poorly kept secret from the get-go and her-- I mean, his -- aria brings back memories of Charles Ludlum's colorful, guys-in-gowns melodramas. Lucy's striped Victorian drop-down parlor is one of several design coups by Derek McLane.
The use of the super title screen similar to the ones employed at regular opera houses is a nice homage to Kurt Weill's wish to use this work to create an opera for nontraditional opera goers. (Since I overheard some complaints about missed lyrics-- it might not have been a bad idea to make more use of this device). Other design elements, obviously created to underscore the parallels between the vulgarity, corruption and ominous political climate that breed inner city underground life in our time as well as Brecht's struck me as more obvious than edgy and less imaginative than Peter Hunt's striking abstract image of Queen Victoria with a swastika earring and part Scotland Yard officer part Hitler mustache at Williamstown. (see link below)
Elliott does a fine job of moving the actors on and off stage in striking tableaus cast in dramatic flickers of light and shadow by lighting designer Jason Lyons. Thanks to Isaak Mizrachi's sexy costumes and Paul Huntley's wigs everyone looks terrifically sleazy and Brechtian.
The longer second act actually seemed shorter than the first because it was more entertaining. Though I've yet to see a Three Penny Opera to rival my first encounter with it at the Theater de Lys, I did find this sometimes boring but as often hilarious production to be ultimately quite powerful and yes, genuinely Brechtian.
For some background on the history of the play, its creators, notable productions and ther posters and cast lists check out the show's web site-- http://www.threepennyopera.org. It's a real knockout. You might also want to check out the way the songs were organized in the Williamstown Theatre Festival's 3-act version. Below, links to our review of that as well as two other revivals .
The Threepenny Opera in Los Angeles
The Threepenny Opera at the Williamstown Theatre Festival
The Threepenny Opera at the Off-Broadway Cocteau Theater
The new annual to dress up every Broadway lover's coffee table
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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At This Theater
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
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