Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera of 1928 has accumulated in less than a century one of theater's most storied histories. Adapted from John Gay's Beggar's Opera of 200 years before, it, like all of Brecht and Weill's Marxist-influenced works, was banned by the Nazis, but there was no snuffing out this blast of sociopolitical mayhem; by then it had already had a period of incredible popularity and been translated (according to Wikipedia) into 18 languages. Filled with rough and ribald characters, gloomy existential cries, and boisterous humor, Threepenny barges and tumbles on into the 21st century. There's just no keeping it down.
The latest iteration is Marvell Rep's ragged-edged but well-played and energetic New York production, well worth seeing for lovers of Weill's angular, intensive music, appreciators of Broadway-quality voices, and anyone interested in impactful theater, musical or otherwise. It opens with the famous song we know as Mack the Knife, sung by a street singer (the highly entertaining Stephen Sheffer) in cutting tones that, together with torn red curtains and a casually tossed-aside skull, prepare us for the harshness of what is to come. At the same time, the staging by director Lenny Leibowitz, full of mugging and pratfalls, establishes a prevailing mood of coarse, edgy jollity.
Sheffer reappears as Matt of the Mint, one of the gang of thieves surrounding the unflappable antihero Macheath, the army-captain-turned-uber-bandit whose exploits, more sexual than violent, form the core of the story. The setting is a down-and-out Victorian London peopled by murderers and scammers of every sort, including a bevy of beggars with fake stumps and carefully bedraggled outfits, all in the pay of Jonathan Jeremiah Peacham (Angus Hepburn), essentially a beggars' pimp. With his wife Celia (Joy Franz of Broadway's Into the Woods) he runs this downscale operation as carefully as any capitalist mogul, but when their daughter Polly runs off to marry Macheath, perpetually pessimistic Peacham is goaded into action.
The two young leads have glorious voices. Matt Faucher as Macheath impresses with a strong, pitch-perfect baritone, but can also glide into tenor territory when it's called for. Though not a supremely charismatic presence when not singing, he carries off Macheath's insouciance well. Emma Rosenthal as Polly, making her New York debut, is a treasure of a find, with Broadway written all over her voice. Singing "Pirate Jenny" she is captivating, and absolutely bewitching climbing up on a table to explain to her mother why she chose Macheath rather than some more eligible suitor in "Barbara Song". And she and the excellent Kelly Pekar (playing rival Lucy Brown) milk plenty of hilarity later on from the scene in which they cautiously find common cause in their love for Macheath.