The Threepenny Opera
by Bertolt Brecht
City Stage at Level 5 • 21 N. Front St.
2/17-20, 24-27 • 8 p.m.
Tickets: $16-$24 • www.citystagenc.com
Based on john gay’s ‘the beggar’s Opera,” a script conceived as a political and class satire in the 1700’s, “The Threepenny Opera” addresses the ongoing questions about morality and its perception in society. City Stage opened the show last weekend with director Don Baker at the helm, who set its pace by posing a small question in the program: “ Who is the greater criminal: He who robs a bank or he who founds one?”
The story begins with the introduction of the Peachum Family. Mr. Peachum, (Zack Simcoe) family patriarch and head of the city’s beggar’s cartel, and his alcoholic wife (Cindy Colucci) have a problem on their hands: Polly (Sophie Amelkin), their beautiful daughter has decided to marry Macheath, king of the local underworld. The combined talent of Simcoe and Colucci could carry any evening. Together they have it all: great singing voices, dance skills, acting ability and comedic timing. Colucci in particular has the right vocal range to work with Weill’s score (think of a show written for Marlene Dietrich to sing, not Julie Andrews). They decide to get Macheath hanged so that Polly will be available for a more suitable marriage.
William Day is Macheath (Mack the Knife). He has choosen a stylized rendition of the famous anti-hero: He speaks out of the side of his mouth and has developed a very specific cadence for his speech (both of which he maintains while singing and dancing). His body is his greatest tool, as he uses it to punctuate his speeches, to create suspense and tension and to make sure that all attention is on him. When he is onstage, the action, the focus and the world revolve around Macheath.
Day is blessed with a bevy of talented women who make him look good. In fact, the best roles in the show are written for women. Director Don Baker, recognizing this, has assembled a talented cast. A juicy sweet, over-ripeness fill the roles of of Amelkin’s Polly, Kendra Georhing as Lucy Brown and Caitlin Becka’s Jenny—a real show stopper. From her solo of the traditional Black Freighter song to her duet with Day, she is magnificent. Becka’s aloof response to the raunchiness of her cohorts and Macheath makes her choice to betray him all the more believable.
Music director Chiaki Ito and her band tackle the difficult task of bringing Weill‘s score to life. To see a banjo, not an electric guitar, at the front of the band is one of the first clues that the audience is in for a very different musical experience. It is a great and wonderful opportunity to hear the score played with instruments of the period: saxophone, banjo, trombone. Weill’s score is of a very specific time and place; Ito’s band makes it vibrant. This is not the standard musical as codified by Rogers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe; this predates their work. It is a hybrid of the operetta.
The set design and construction is nothing short of inspired, though neither are credited in the program. Visually interesting, its detail and functionality mesh nicely with the historic Masonic theatre, which transports the audience. Combined with a choice to show the scene changes and a loose approach to blocking, as the audience sips cocktails and watches the band, it all produces the feel of a 1920’s German kabarett.
Susanna Douhit’s costume design visually complements the production concept: Macheath is in spats and pinstripes, very 1920’s; the girls in fishnets, lingerie and drop-waist flapper dresses. Though the Queen’s messenger at the end might have the best costume of the entire show, even the dapper Macheath can’t help but notice it.
This is not a high-brow polished production. The humor is coarse; the characters murder, steal and con people professionally. The action takes place in whore houses and prison cells, but it is a front for a larger discussion of societal ills. Are not these locales somehow more honest than bankers and elected officials cruising on a yacht, surrounded by beautiful women, drinking champagne and planning yet another way to enrich themselves at the expense of the working class? Macheath himself says, “I’m thinking of becoming a banker, the take is better.”
Brecht, born to a privileged family life, became disillusioned by the disparity of class and economic opportunity in Europe as a young adult. He found answers in Marxism and much of his writing reflects the real and ideological struggles he perceived as the epicenter of human conflict. Arguably the two great creative motivators in his artistic life were his commitment to class struggle and witnessing the rise of Nazism in Germany.
“The Threepenny Opera” was written in German, and City Stage chose Marc Blitzstein’s English translation of the script, the most commercially successful of the four that have debuted in America. This version is also considered the “lighter” and “softer” translation of a hard and gritty show—closer to “The Beggar’s Opera.” Brecht and Weill’s interpretation of John Gay’s satiric operetta was more political than his script, and much darker. Brecht was a fan of using other locations and time periods for his topically sensitive work, but by not setting this in Weimar Republic, he has allowed it a timelessness that makes it still applicable today.