BWW Reviews: Clarke's THE THREEPENNY OPERA Stays Too Perpendicular
Despite its reputation as the most daring and depraved piece of musical theatre to hit these shores courtesy of Weimar Germany, Bertolt Brecht (book and lyrics) and Kurt Weill's (music) masterpiece of social satire, The Threepenny Opera has never been a great commercial success on Broadway.
Its first stint in town folded after a dozen performances and two additional Broadway revivals were poorly received. A 1976 non-profit mounting produced by Joseph Papp set up shop at Lincoln Center for the better part of a year, but the show really earned its American reputation Off-Broadway during a run at Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel) that was such a surprise hit in 1954 that it had to temporarily close for a previously scheduled booking before returning for a nearly six year run in '55.
Weill's widow and muse, Lotte Lenya, who originated the role of Jenny Diver at the Berlin premiere, repeated her performance for the German film version, this time co-opting the song "Pirate Jenny" from the character Polly Peachum. Playing Jenny again Off-Broadway, she reclaimed her signature tune, causing many to think the character's name was Pirate Jenny ever since.
Mark Blitzstein provided the translation for the Theatre de Lys production and his lyric for the opening "Ballad of Mack The Knife" was the one used for Bobby Darin's jazzed up hit single. But despite its success and popularity for regional productions, theatre scholars have considered it to be the least Brechtian of all the English translations that have received major productions; softening up the hard edges and blunt sexuality. Certainly other writers have found more graphic words to use for the lyric Blitzstein translates as, "the word is mean, and man uncouth."
For the Atlantic Theater Company's new mounting, director/choreographer Martha Clarke goes along with Blitzstein's polite hinting at the ruthless doings among the thieves and whores of Victorian London. Her attractive cast, sometimes seen partially clothed, plays out the sexual power struggle between men and women as something more erotic than vulgar and self-serving. Her opening moment, where a bulldog (billed as Romeo) licks at the body of an unconscious prostitute, is more cute than shocking because... well, it's a live bulldog.
Conductor Fred Lassen and his ragtag collection of musicians do a fine job with Weill's period-defining orchestrations and John Kelly opens strongly with a knowing rendition of "The Ballad of Mack The Knife" as he wanders through the unsavory city streets depicted with cut-out set pieces by Robert Israel.
Known to his intimates as Macheath, the dapper cutthroat and rapist described in the lyric is played wit
h steely reserve by the chiseled-handsome Michael Park. Macheath has married Polly Peachum (Laura Osnes), the daughter of one of London's craftier businessmen. A sort of pimp for beggars, Peachum (F. Murray Abraham) has his hand in the pocket of anyone asking for handouts in London, charging them a high percentage of their earnings in exchange for protection and proper training in gaining sympathy.
Macheath is also married to Lucy Brown (Lilli Cooper), the daughter of butt-kissing police chief Tiger Brown, an old army buddy who, in exchange for his share, makes sure his pal is always a step ahead of the law.
None of this sits well with Jenny (Sally Murphy), the prostitute who shares more than a business relationship with him.
Though the singing is solid throughout, The Threepenny Opera is an actors' musical and the sharpness of Brecht's satire ("What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?") and the rebellious edge of his anthems are sometimes lost in Clarke's pursuit of interesting visuals.
There is little sexual spark between Macheath and the three ladies vying for his affection, but Osnes and Cooper are dynamite together in "Jealousy Duet," where they each lay claim to their mutual husband's love.
Though she's made a career of playing Rodgers and Hammerstein ingénues, it's good to hear Osnes take some of the pretty out of her soprano voice for a sly and flirtatious rendering of "Barbara Song," where she sings of her desire for a man who won't treat her like a lady.
Heaps of chemistry can be found between Abraham's elegantly voiced, but hard as nails Peachum and Mary Beth Peil as his feisty survivor of a wife. Whether nimbly handling Brecht's arch comedy or singing damnations of the world's cruelty, the two of them provide far more than your threepenny's worth.