New York-area readers hungry for a little Weimer Republic-era color could do no better than the recent revival of The Threepenny Opera, currently at the Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street, Manhattan. In an English adaptation by Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964) of the Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) book, the small but game troupe of professionals breathes new life into the show with music by Kurt Weill (1900-1950).
Under the direction of Martha Clarke (born 1944), this production owes its artistic inspiration to the style of the seductive and seedy era of Weimar Berlin, and it is gamely played by the Atlantic Theater company. The Blitzstein translation of the original is the same as appeared in the US in 1954, when the Opera played at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
The Opera was originally adapted from an 18th Century English ballad opera, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. The Weill-Brecht show opened originally in Berlin in 1928, and was hailed as a socialist criticism of capitalist society. Though filled with many fine songs, only The Ballad of Mack the Knife has since become a standard. (There is a wonderful recording of Lotte Lenya, Mrs. Kurt Weill and star of the original production, singing with Louis Armstrong here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5362wt7-dEM.)
The story is simply told: two-bit punk Macheath (Mack the Knife) marries virginal Polly Peachum. This enrages her father, who is King of the Beggars, and he works to have Macheath hanged for past crimes. However, Tiger Brown, the Chief of Police, is an old crony of Mack’s, and he ensures the criminal’s safety. When Peachum finally has Mack behind bars and heading towards a well-deserved hanging, the villain receives a pardon from the Queen, along with a baronetcy.
Working on a bare-bone set, the cast manages to convey the seamy back-streets of London, a brothel, the home of the beggar king and an open-air hanging. The invention of the staging is matched only by the game playing of the cast, who invest the show with rare theatrical alchemy.
Though Clarke’s staging is uniformly creative, it is, to our taste, marked by a taste for the sordid and the seedy. It was hardly necessary for the brothel scene to be punctuated by moments of simulated sex or gratuitous nudity. (No prudes here at The Jade Sphinx, we like nudity more than the next fellow. It just doesn’t have to have such an unsavory, sordid air.) At times, Clarke doesn’t trust the material and over-compensates, hardly necessary, considering the inherent theatricality of the show. Clarke’s work may be very smart, but it leaves a dank taste at times.
As the Beggar King, F. Murray Abraham (born 1939) cuts a wonderfully, Fagin-like figure. By turns majestic and threadbare, he manages to invest his character with a tremendous, conniving energy. Mary Beth Peil (born 1940), as his wife, Mrs. Peachum, is a powerhouse of venom and indignation.
Laura Osnes (born 1985), as Polly, was recently seen in the Broadway production of Cinderella, and there are few more beautiful voices currently on Broadway. Her acting is clean and direct, her charisma high and her singing magnificent. More please.
Also solid is Rick Holmes (born 1963), as Tiger Brown, as well as two standouts in the ensemble: Timothy Doyle and Jon David Casey. Doyle first came to our attention for his scene-stealing turn opposite Frank Langella in Fortune’s Fool some 10 years ago, and we wonder why he is not a bigger star. Casey has an impressive physicality and presence, and his handsome face can easily transform into effective menace. I’m sure we will see more of them both.
Perhaps the one disappointing performance comes from leading man Michael Park (born 1968), as Mack. Where the role calls for calculating, slimy insouciance, Park never seems to be more than the self-centered football star remembered from our college days. He never effectively projects menace, intelligence or charm – vital components of Mack. Fortunately, the overall quality of the show transcends the hole in its center.