Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Threepenny Opera"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


play with music after John Gay’s THE BEGGAR’S OPERA
based upon the German translation by Elisabeth Hauptmann
music by Kurt Weill; adaptation and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht
English translation of dialog by Robert MacDonald
English translation of lyrics by Jeremy Sams

directed by Rick Lombardo
musical direction by Todd C. Gordon
choreography by Kelli Edwards

Pirate Jenny … Leigh Barrett
Mr. Peachum … Paul D. Farwell
Filch/Ned … Brian Robinson
Mrs. Peachum … Nancy E. Carroll
Matt … Tritano D. Evans
MacHeath … Todd Alan Johnson
Polly Peachum … Susan Molloy
Jake … Robert Antonelli
Bob … Stephen Marc Beaudoin
Jimmy … Yaegel T. Welch
Walt/P.C. Smith … Matthew J. Nichols
Betty/Rev. Kimball … Britney Burgess
Tiger Brown … Steven Barkhimer
Dolly … Whitney Cohen
Vixen … Mara Radulovic
Nelly … Elizabeth Asti
Lucy Brown … Stacey Cervellino


Reed 1 … Louis Toth
Reed 2 … Andy Bergman
Trumpet … John Mahoney
Trombone … Harlan Feinstein
Banjo, etc. … Carl Phillips
Percussion … Scott Nason
Keyboard … Todd C. Gordon

In Lotte Lenya’s own words:

… four or five big American producers came to me [in 1952] and said, “We want to do [THE THREEPENNY OPERA].” I said, “Well, that’s wonderful. How do you want to do it?” One said, “Well I want to set it in San Francisco.” I said, “Why in San Francisco? If Brecht didn’t think of San Francisco, why do you?” “Well, I just feel that way.” I said, “Well, thank you very much.” The other one came and said, “Well, I’d love to do it, but first of all we have to get rid of that corny orchestration.” I said, “Well, thank you very much. No.” He said, “Well, if you’re that difficult you can wait until doomsday.” I said, “Then I’ll wait.”

Well, I didn’t have to wait until doomsday. Eventually two young producers came, Carmen Capalbo and Stanley Chase, completely unknown, and they said, “Miss Lenya, we would love to do THREEPENNY OPERA. We have no background, nothing, but we just love the work, and we want to do it.” I said, “Well, would you do it the way it’s written?” “Yes, exactly, we won’t change a thing.” I said, “Take it. You get to do it.” It opened [off-Broadway] in 1954 and ran three months short of seven years.

* * *

What would the late Lotte Lenya think of New Rep’s production of THE THREEPENNY OPERA? Its excellence will be a tough act to follow --- and it’s only January! --- and much of it thrilled me but purists, be warned: the production comes wrapped in a gimmick. Rick Lombardo, so faithful in his execution of last year’s WAITING FOR GODOT, sets his production in a futuristic London where derelicts, hiding in an abandoned theatre from ominous-sounding helicopters, tell the tale of Mack the Knife, gentleman thief and murderer, and his fellow crooks and whores for their own amusement/distraction; whatever forces are hunting them down find them at the end (no doubt, said forces heard Mr. Weill’s music). Mr. Lombardo’s aim is two-fold: to follow up his acclaimed production of Stephen Sondheim’s SWEENEY TODD (he has reunited key members from its casts) and to display his social conscience (“We find ourselves thrust into a twenty-first century troubled with economic instability, international conflict, and on-going national security fears. The satirical and cautionary barrage unleashed by Bertoldt Brecht and Kurt Weill is precisely the antidote we need.”). Lenya would argue --- and I would agree with her --- that THE THREEPENNY OPERA doesn’t need to be tweaked for today’s audiences: Mr. Brecht’s libretto still has plenty of bite and Mr. Weill’s sweet-and-sour music still seduces and influences to this day, and Mr. Lombardo’s decision to produce/direct THE THREEPENNY OPERA is in itself proof of his social conscience --- for all of Mr. Lombardo’s good intentions, he should have let Weill enough alone; fortunately, his tweaking does not taint all that is golden in his production.

When Leigh Barrett, eyes glowing like an alley cat’s, spat out an acid “Mack the Knife” (retitled “The Flick Knife Song”); I whispered to my neighbor, “We’re in for a grim one.” When Paul D. Farwell’s Mr. Peachum bounded forward, grinning like a sewer rat and backed with buh-duh-BUMPS from the orchestra, I began to relax; when Nancy E. Carroll’s Mrs. Peachum popped out of a laundry cart a la Beckett, I embraced the production and did not let go --- I’m embracing it, still: Mr. Lombardo has captured the work’s cheeky, cabaret-like tone that fueled the original Berlin production three-quarters of a century ago (for example, when Mackie is sprung from jail, he and Polly embrace and each kick up a leg behind them in a mockery of reunion); the opera’s cheekiness vanished after World War II when Brecht revised it as a dour cautionary tale and it has been played on many a down note ever since.

I find little that is cautionary in THE THREEPENNY OPERA; if there is a moral, it would be that Man is an animal out for his own pleasure and survival and hasn’t changed over the millenniums; THAT is the timely- and timelessness of the opera rather than it being a finger pointing at certain regimes or governments (it’s similar to saying the Kit Kat Klub in the musical CABARET paved the way for the Third Reich). Mr. Lombardo can thank Robert MacDonald for his masterly translation of Brecht’s libretto: its sardonic humor comes from (1) thieving and whoring being everyday, matter-of-fact businesses and (2) there being iron-clad morals even in the underworld --- Jeremy Sams’ new lyrics are top-heavy and rely on Weill’s genius to keep them afloat. Peter Colaro, Frances Nelson McSherry and John Ambrosone’s set, costume and lighting designs are an Expressionistic blend of the drab and the garish, and Kelli Edwards’ choreography for “The Gang Song” (f/k/a “The Canon Song”) is the best staging of a musical number I’ve seen in a long time --- anywhere: it begins as a duet and then organically, BELIEVABLY, builds to its raggedy chorus-line (small wonder that this number tipped the original Berlin audience in the show’s favor; it, and not “Mack the Knife”, won them over on Opening Night, back in 1928).

Todd Alan Johnson, Mr. Lombardo’s Sweeney Todd, has returned with a fascinating Mackie: his Demon Barber’s burning eyes and well-deep baritone have been replaced with a quiet, feline watchfulness and a reedy tone; his Mackie speaks softly and carries a small knife and is blessedly free of any visible psychosis but is no less deadly for all of his exaggerated manners. Just when you think Mr. Johnson is going to coast through the evening without unlocking his glorious pipes, he rips them open for “Ballad in which MacHeath Begs All Mens’ Forgiveness” and blows you away (my neighbor mentioned afterwards that Mr. Johnson’s lethal playfulness would make an excellent Frank N. Furter; after some thought, I agreed). In addition to Mr. Farwell, Ms. Carroll (who seems incapable of taking a false step, acting or singing-wise) and Ms. Barrett (the one diamond amidst the roughs), Susan Molloy makes an amusing Inflato-Girl out of Polly Peachum and Steven Barkhimer, who impressed as the drunken journalist in MONTICEL’, is a delightful surprise as a singing/dancing Tiger Brown. A talented clutch of Brandeis students/graduates round out much of the ensemble --- Mr. Lombardo is to be applauded for giving these young artists a chance to perform (and to shine) alongside Mr. Johnson and his peers (the stage, after all, is the actor’s real classroom).

Hopefully New Rep will come up with other Weill productions; even Ms. Lenya would agree that Mr. Lombardo & Company clearly have “it”: this THREEPENNY may not give its actors a happy ending but they certainly deserve a HAPPY END --- sans gimmicks, please.

"The Threepenny Opera" (7 January-8 February)
54 Lincoln Street, NEWTON HIGHLANDS, MA
1 (617) 332-7058

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide