San Diego Repertory Theatre is presenting an excellent production of Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera. The show is Brecht’s retelling of John Gay’s 18th century Beggar's Opera, featuring Mack the Knife and assorted lowlife characters. While Gay meant to satirize society, Brecht meant to lacerate it and its bourgeois values. Brecht utilizes the musical genius of Kurt Weill to make his points, and Weill’s haunting yet biting score has helped The Threepenny Opera survive the years. Together they undercut the traditional safe forms of opera and operetta; the script has a political agenda, while the score incorporates Berlin cabaret music of the 1920s.
The Threepenny Opera had its legendary Off-Broadway debut in 1954 featuring Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya as Pirate Jenny. Marc Blitzstein's translation is the one that people are familiar with, partly owing to the popularity of Bobby Darin’s hit recording of "Mack the Knife." The show was revived again in 1976 with director Richard Foreman, with an English adaptation by Ralph Manheim and John Willet.
In 1989 Threepenny Opera opened on Broadway with Raul Julia in the lead, Jon Dexter directing, and a new, harsher translation by Michael Feingold replacing the "softer" Blitzstein. It is this later Feingold version that is used by director Sam Woodhouse in San Diego. I must admit I didn’t like the translation when I saw it on Broadway, but hearing it in the intimacy of the Lyceum Theatre, I came to really appreciate the words. This is mainly due to the outstanding direction by Sam Woodhouse, who knows not to lay it on the audience with a trowel but just present it with humor and humanity and let the words speak for themselves.
The cast of this production is first-rate. Lyle Kanouse is a milder Peachum than I have seen before, but he is still effective. Leigh Scarrit (Mrs. Peachum) dominates every scene she is in. Amanda Kramer as Polly has just the right mixture of ingénue and tough broad. Gale McNeeley is terrific as Tiger Brown, as is Amy Ashworth Biedel as his daughter Lucy. Lisa Payton Jartu seemed a bit young for Jenny, but she can sure sing. In fact the whole cast have wonderful voices.
The Threepenny Opera can rise and fall on the casting of Macheath. Jeffrey Meek is perfection. He is sexy, dangerous, suave, humorous, and a total cad. He sings very well too. Congratulations to Sam Woodhouse and his remarkable cast for a memorable night in the theater.
The Threepenny Opera plays at the San Diego Rep through March 29.