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The Threepenny Opera
Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht
Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera is a masterpiece of musical
theater that grew out of its writers' experience of Weimar Germany, the period between the
World Wars when Germany struggled to establish a working democracy in the face of economic
malaise and the bitterness of military defeat.
First performed in Berlin in
1928, Brecht's text is sardonic and brittle. He creates a world of beggars, thieves, and
prostitutes in which there is no honor; every character would sell out any other if an
advantage is to be gained. Relationships are fluid, changeable; betrayals abound as
new alliances are formed amongst the array of seedy, colorful characters.
Jonathan Peachum is the king of
beggars, here an entrepreneur. Brecht portrays the beggars, thieves, and prostitutes as
capitalists, running businesses for a profit. Peachum has the instincts of a contemporary
A man who sees another man on a street corner with
only a stump for an arm will be so shocked the first time he'll give him sixpence. But the
second time it'll only be a threepenny bit. And if he sees him a third time, he'll have
him cold-bloodedly handed over to the police.
(By not so surprising chance, those lines function nicely as a precis of the 1990s
relationship of American municipalities to the homeless.)
Macheath ("Mack the
Knife") heads up the thieves division. His men tremble before him, he's got the
police well greased, and women compete for his sexual attentions. He has impregnated his
lover, Lucy, he marries Peachum's daughter Polly, and he still has a passionate connection
with hooker Jenny.
For this cynical scenario, Weill wrote a score that has become part of
Western culture's consciousness: jazzy, syncopated, dissonant, and full of inventive
melody, it captures the essence of the mocking, ironic tone of the book.
The Threepenny Opera is a highly stylized piece. It is not a
show about production values. On the contrary, it is the kind of show that, if performed
with the right tone and the appropriate sense of style, could be done effectively on a
bare stage. Unfortunately, American Conservatory Theater's new production, directed by
Carey Perloff, has neither the right tone, nor any noticeable style at all. Perloff rarely
manages to project effectively the cynicism of the work. What should be hard-edged and
gritty comes out, under her direction, rounded and mushy. What should be mocking with a
twist of mean comes out with all the bite of a canceled sitcom.
In a desperate attempt to inject some personality into the missing
heart of her production, Perloff sets it in San Francisco, hedging even that commitment by
saying in the program, "a large city by a harbor." Though she tosses into the
script names of San Francisco streets, and has the subject of the coronation the city's
current imperial mayor, she evokes no sense of place whatever and the gimmick
smacks of pandering to a provincial audience rather than growing out of the underlying
work. The basic unit set has been recycled at ACT too many times. Some elements of it make
no sense at all to the events onstage and attempting to dazzle the audience with a lot of
flashing lights ends up a distraction rather than an enhancement.
The cast is a talented and varied group that seemed never to have met
before opening night. No two were performing in the same style and all were underdirected,
seeming not to know what to do with their hands or their feet - or, for that matter, their
lines. (No choreographer is named in the program, though Luis Perez is credited with
musical staging.) What dancing there is is both hackneyed in concept and awkward in
Steven Anthony Jones as Peachum gamely tried to inject some energy into
a performance that was an uninflected reading of lines. He, in particular, waved his hands
about in the same two or three stock patterns all through the performance. Veteran Nancy
Dessault came closer to the mark than anyone. She managed some real bite in "Ballad
of the Prisoner of Sex," her big number of the evening, but Perloff almost dragged
her under with her inappropriate costume and byplay with an umbrella that had nothing to
do with the goings on in the song or on the stage, but seemed imported from some other
Philip Casnoff (Macheath) and Anika Noni Rose (Polly) are both talented
performers with many skills, but both of them are distressingly miscast. They register as
too nice when they're supposed to be mean, too soft when they're supposed to be tough.
Lisa Vroman, who has a big voice, is done a gross injustice by Perloff, who turns her role
of Lucy Brown into high camp in still one more effort to resuscitate a dying show.
Aloof from it all, as if passing through a disaster area on a strange
continent, Bebe Neuwirth, as Jenny, clasps her hands in front of her and sings "The
Ballad of Mack the Knife," articulating every word in her smoky deep voice, finding
in the lyrics the soul of Brecht. Unfortunately, the excruciating wobble in her voice when
she sings full volume is a painful distraction.
The onstage band offered the major redeeming element in this mismanaged
evening. Their reading of the Weill score sounded just right. Alas, though, we came
for Weill and Brecht's Weimar and they gave us 14 actors in search of a director.
- Arthur Lazere