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New York City Theater

"The Threepenny Opera"
New York stage

How did “The Threepenny Opera,” written in 1928, move from its status as a protest piece to worldwide fame, from an intriguing little show to a classic? Certainly it captured the mood and spirit of pre-Nazi Germany. Certainly later it would be banned by the Nazis, as were many lesser works. And certainly its composer Kurt Weill (a Jew) and writer Bertolt Brecht (an anti-Nazi) would ultimately flee the country.

Brecht and Weill would set their piece in 1837, at the time of Queen Victoria’s coronation, but this corrupt world of thieves and whores could indeed be applicable one hundred years later. But earlier history indicates that “The Threepenny Opera” was based on a 1728 piece, John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera,” a satirical ballad opera complete with a shocking, gritty atmosphere that would wear well.

And now, once again, “The Threepenny Opera” makes its appearance on a New York stage. This off-Broadway version presented by the Marvell Rep is appropriately housed on a tiny third floor stage. Much of the spirit is captured with its tattered curtains, awkwardly-lettered scene announcements, and ragged costumes. The piece opens with a character seated on the toilet, performing (both his bodily functions and his rendition of “Mac the Knife”). A memorable moment indeed.

The story, which has remained intact through the years, deals with Macheath (aka Mac the Knife), captain of a gang of thieves, and his amorous adventures. Polly Peachum, whose father is king of the beggars, runs off to marry (or thinks she marries) Macheath. This impels Peachum into betraying Macheath, leading to his capture and hanging (or does he hang?)

Alas, the Marvell Rep show does not live up to its strong beginnings. Many of the performers are rank amateurs, lacking solid singing voices and believable stage movements. Though the leads move with assurance, larger scenes with more cast members lead one to believe that this is a student acting class. But Angus Hepburn and Joy Franz (as Mr. and Mrs. Peachum, respectively) are thoroughly professional, always in character, whether singing, pontificating, or interacting with others. Matt Faucher interprets Macheath as a likeable scoundrel, always popular with the ladies, but one would have liked to see more bite and menace in the portrayal. As to Mac’s many woman, Ariela Morgenstern stands out as Jennie Diver. She is stunning, and it is only in her solo number that she stumbles, twisting her mouth awkwardly. Emma Rosenthal is credible as Polly Peachum, but falters in her songs, tending to screech on the high notes, as do others in the cast. But she has an effective scene with Kelly Pekar, as the two vie for Macheath’s love. And finally, a note of praise, to Chad Jennings, who never falters as Macheath’s buddy, Tiger Brown, the police official.

All told, this is not the strong “Threepenny Opera” one would love to see on the New York stage, but it is nonetheless heartening to see Mackie and his pals back in town.

-- Irene Backalenick
February 21, 2012


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