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.
None of that should be taken as a slight to the excellent work by Chad Jennings as Tiger Brown (Lucy’s corrupt police-chief father), Hepburn and Franz as the put-upon elders, Ariela Morgenstern as Jenny Diver, Mike Rosengarten as a very funny Crookfinger Jack, and the rest of the large company. All bring their characters vividly to life, a neat trick in the tight setting of the small theater. Diction is critical in a wordy show like this and the cast makes the superb English translation by Michael Feingold sound simultaneously elevated, natural, and grittily degraded.
The problems with the production at the preview performance I attended were minor and technical, like narrative signs insufficiently lighted and a few instances of feedback. In the small TBG Theatre the cast doesn’t wear mics; instead mics hang from overhead, which makes overall for a much nicer, more natural atmosphere. But it was noticeable that the voices were stronger when projected from some parts of the performing space than from others.
Meanwhile, led by the able pianist-music director Kevin B. Winebold, the mostly brass-and-reed band had the right street-dance-band rambunctiousness and moments of musical excellence but wasn’t always thoroughly in tune.
The show is designed in three acts with distinct narrative breaks for the two intermissions. Performing it with just one break causes a bit of audience confusion early on and makes the first act rather excessively long. I expect there are valid reasons – time constraints and so on – for doing it this way. How often to you go to a play with two intermissions these days? But in this case it hurts.
“What’s a greater crime? Robbing a bank or founding one?” In these times, Macheath’s question resonates, but it doesn’t take a financial crisis to make Threepenny Opera relevant. Inequities, corruption, and violence are everpresent, and this Marvell Rep production blasts out that message with waves of talent and bright energy. It runs through Feb. 29 in rotating repertory with Professor Bernhardi at TBC Theatre in Manhattan.