Michael Park and Laura Osnes (foreground)
in a scene from The Threepenny Opera
(Photo credit: Kevin Thomas Garcia)
When the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht musical, The Threepenny Opera, first reached Broadway in 1928 after its German world premiere, it lasted all of 12 performances. It was not until the Marc Blitzstein translation and adaptation that opened in 1954 at the Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel) and ran for 2,611 performances that it became a success in the United States. Since then it has been revived periodically on Broadway over the years in various translations: Richard Foreman’s 1976 production at Lincoln Center with Raul Julia and Blair Brown which used the then new Ralph Manheim and John Willett translation, Sting and Maureen McGovern in Michael Feingold’s translation in 1989, and Wallace Shawn’s liberally adapted version staged by the Roundabout Theater Company in 2006 with Alan Cumming, Nellie McKay, Cyndi Lauper and Jim Dale. The only one of these revivals to have a substantial run was Foreman’s version with 307 performances back in the seventies. Now the Marc Blitzstein version has returned to Off Broadway for the first time since 2003 in a production by choreographer/director Martha Clarke for Atlantic Theater Company.
Brecht’s 1928 Die Dreigroschenoper is a scathing socialist attack on capitalist society adapting John Gay’s 18th century English ballad opera, The Beggar’s Opera, to the twentieth century. Macheath (aka Mack the Knife), the notorious bandit and womanizer, bane of London society, has married Polly Peachum without her father’s permission, and plans to go into banking instead of crime. Her father Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum is the king and organizer of London’s beggars, and consequently another force to be reckoned with in London’s underworld. Peachum seeks to have Macheath arrested but ‘Tiger’ Brown, chief of London’s police, is an old army buddy of Mackie and won’t lift a finger against him. However, Mackie has made a lot of enemies particularly among his many intimate women friends including Lucy Brown (Tiger Brown’s daughter), who claims to be Mackie’s wife, and the prostitute Jenny. When one of them betrays him, Macheath is sentenced to be hanged. He defends himself as a modern Robin Hood, a more honorable man than the corrupt and greedy capitalists in power. In a classic deus ex machina, Queen Victoria pardons him and sets him up for life.
Up until now Clarke has been best known as the choreographer/director of such plotless stage dance pieces as Garden of Earthly Delights, Vienna: Lusthaus, Miracolo d’amore, and Belle Epoque. In recent years she has moved into directing operas in various venues including Mozart’s The Magic Flute and
Cosi fan tutte, Gluck’s Orfeo and Eurydice, and Tan Dun’s Marco Polo. This appears to be her first time directing a classic musical written for the theater. Unlike her dance projects, her Threepenny Opera has no consistent style. She has cast her production with performers, many of them quite famous, from different worlds, opera, dramatic theater, cabaret, musical theater, operetta, all of them having a style of their own. In the show, the members of London’s underworld go about their daily lives breaking all of society’s rules with tremendous glee and jubilation. Strangely enough, in this staging no one on stage seems to be having much fun. It is difficult for the audience to enjoy the show under these circumstances.
Mary Beth Peil, F. Murray Abraham and cast
in a scene from The Threepenny Opera
(Photo credit: Kevin Thomas Garcia)
The most famous songs (covered by many artists) continue to be “Ballad of Mack the Knife” and “Pirate Jennie.” Although uncredited, the orchestrations appear to be Kurt Weill’s own as they were in the 1954 Blitzstein/Theatre de Lys production. While the seven-piece orchestra under the direction of Fred Lassen is generally fine, occasionally the music seems too slow for Weill’s jazzy rhythms. As to the musical numbers in the Blitzstein version, there has been some rearrangement. The “Barbara Song” originally sung by Lucy Brown has been reassigned to Polly Peachum. As a result, in order to give Lucy a song of her own, “Ballad of the Drowned Girl” from the Weill/Brecht Berlin Requiem (in an orchestration by music director Gary S. Fagin) has been interpolated into the score. The running order of several of the other songs has been changed so that this is not strictly Blitzstein’s version. There is much less dancing than one might have expected from a famed choreographer but the most effectively staged musical number is the “Tango Ballad” which offers striking tableaux, always Clarke’s strong point in the past. Generally performed in three acts as written, this revival has been revised to have only one intermission.
Little in this production seems to gel and the cast seems adrift in this story of the conflict between greed and respectability. Although they sing well, few of the performers have made these iconic roles their own. As Macheath, aka Mack the Knife, Michael Park is cheerless and moody, rather than the charismatic swashbuckling hero of yore. F. Murray Abraham, who has not appeared in a New York musical since the 1997 Triumph of Love, is rather bland as the king of the beggars, normally a very vivid role. As his wife Mrs. Peachum, Mary Beth Peil of the beautiful operatic soprano, seems to be too much a lady for a woman who spends all her time with low lives. On the other hand, Rick Holmes seems at home with the material and brings a wry sense of humor and a music hall sensibility to the role of Police Commissioner Tiger Brown.
Among Macheath’s girlfriends, Lilli Cooper as a pregnant Lucy Brown is the most forceful of the women and is totally attuned to the Brecht/Weill satire. Laura Osnes, late of Cinderella, gives her deepest, darkest performance to date as Polly Peachum and puts her smooth and accomplished soprano to excellent use. Sally Murphy as Jenny, on the other hand, is very little seen other than in her understated rendition of “Pirate Jenny.” There is a touch of nudity occasionally but in this context it is totally unerotic. A strange touch is the well-behaved bulldog Romeo who is put to various uses throughout the show including showing up dressed as Queen Victoria in the final scene.
The visual elements work to varying degrees: Robert Israel’s unattractive and colorless setting covers two-thirds of the stage with blank grey walls which include two doors, a window and an alcove for the orchestra. The minimalist design makes use of a few pieces of furniture such as a table, some chairs, as well as a cell in Newgate Prison for the last act. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting is generally dreary, like the set, except for a few expressionistically lit scenes casting sinister shadows, bringing the entire production to life in these moments. The costumes by Donna Zakowska appear to be 1930’s from the length of the skirts and run the gamut from attractive ensembles in single colors for the well-off characters to variegated outfits for the beggars.
This is a rare chance to see and hear The Threepenny Opera in the legendary Marc Blitzstein adaptation. On the other hand, with the changes to the running order and the blandness and bleakness of the production, this might not be the best way to be introduced to this classic musical.
The Threepenny Opera (through May 11, 2014)
Atlantic Theater Company, Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.atlantictheater.org
Running time: two hours and five minutes with one intermission