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The Threepenny Opera
Music by Kurt Weill, Book and Lyrics by Bertolt Brecht
English Adaptation by Marc Blitzstein
Directed by Scott Miller
New Line Theatre
May 29, 2015

Todd Schaefer, Cherlynn Alvarez Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Todd Schaefer, Cherlynn Alvarez
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

The Threepenny Opera is a contradiction in several ways. It’s simultaneously comedic and bleak, energetic and gloomy. It’s a story without any real heroes, but where some villains are more villainous than others. It’s a classic that I’d never seen before, and New Line’s latest production has proven to be a memorable introduction.

This is a show that has elements of both broad comedy and tragedy, and although the characters are often larger than life, there are no real “good guys” or “bad guys”.  Basically, everyone is a “bad guy” in one way or another, and that’s essentially the point.  Set in Victorian London, the story follows a cast of unscrupulous characters who spend the show trying to outwit, dominate or enthrall other characters.  In the show’s intro–and by far its most famous song–we are introduced to the notorious criminal Macheath (Todd Schaefer), also known as “Mack the Knife.” He’s a notorious bandit, but he basically owns London, including the police commissioner, Tiger Brown (Christopher “Zany” Clark), who worships Macheath with a kind of puppy-like devotion. And then there’s Mr. Peachum (Zachary Allen Farmer), who operates something of an employment agency for beggars, and his scheming wife Mrs. Peachum (Sarah Porter).  Their latest problem is that their daughter Polly (Cherlynn Alvarez) has become romantically attached to Macheath and is set to marry him, despite the badly kept secret that he’s involved with many other women all over town, including Tiger Brown’s daughter, Lucy (Christina Rios), and local madam Jenny Diver (Nikki Glenn). That’s just part of the story, though, as subplots unfold involving the Queen’s coronation and a plot to have Macheath caught and hanged for his crimes. It’s a social critique and a dark comedy, with a memorable jazz-influenced score and a well-established sense of time and place.

Speaking of time and place, there is one aspect of New Line’s production that is worth noting. Although the story is set in London, the entire cast performs in American accents as, director Miller has informed me, was the intention of the original off-Broadway production for which this translation was produced. Otherwise, the setting is suitably in period, with Rob Lippert’s evocatively detailed set and Sarah Porter’s meticulously appointed costumes that add flair to each character.  There’s also striking use of lighting by Kenneth Zinkl, and as usual, an excellent band led by Music Director Jeffrey Richard Carter.

The cast here is excellent, for the most part. The unquestioned stars of the show, from my perspective, are Farmer and Porter as the Peachums. Both ooze an oily villainy with enough presence to make them fascinating despite their complete amorality, and both are in strong voice. Farmer is especially memorable in his introduction “Morning Anthem” and his numbers with Porter and with Alvarez as their daughter Polly. Porter’s “Ballad of Dependency” is another highlight. These two completely command the stage whenever they appear. As Macheath, Schaefer is suitably menacing when he needs to be, although he can be a little overly laid-back at times. Alvarez has a strong voice as Polly, and is particularly adept at screaming when she needs to.  Other memorable performances come from Glenn as a particularly surly Jenny, and Rios as the jealous Lucy. She shows off a strong voice in her solo on “Barbara Song” and her “Jealousy Duet” with Alvarez. Brian Claussen, Kent Coffel, Todd Micali and Luke Steingruby are effectively comical as Macheath’s gang, as well. There’s also good presence and attitude from Kimi Short, Margeau Steineau and Larissa White as the girls at Jenny’s establishment. Jeremy Hyatt is also funny in a small but memorable role as would-be professional beggar Charles Filch. As usual for New Line, the ensemble singing is very strong, and there’s a great deal of energy and cohesiveness throughout.

The Threepenny Opera is a classic piece of theatre from a celebrated playwright and with a renowned score. It’s influenced a great many other works, as noted by director Scott Miller in the program.  It’s easy to see that influence in New Line’s production, which brings the show to the St. Louis audience in a vivid and highly accessible way.  It presents a message that’s particularly dark when you think about it, about how an unregulated capitalist system can bring about pervasive corruption, and it’s all presented in an entertaining and largely upbeat manner. It can be jarring to think about, but you just might find yourself humming “Mack the Knife” as you ponder.

Cherlynn Alvarez, Sarah Porter, Zachary Allen Farmer Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Cherlynn Alvarez, Sarah Porter, Zachary Allen Farmer
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

The Threepenny Opera is being presented by New Line Theatre at the Washington University South Campus Theatre until June 20, 2015.

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