BWW Review: STC's THREEPENNY OPERA: Weimar Germany Is Having A Moment
Weimar Germany - the experiment with post-Great War democracy that shone brightly, if briefly, prior to the Great Depression only to crash and burn in its aftermath - currently is having a cultural renaissance. The most-talked-about and binge-worthy Netflix original series, at present, is the sumptuously mounted, intricately written and brilliantly acted Babylon Berlin, which is touted as the most expensive non-English language television series ever produced. Kander and Ebb's Cabaret, the iconic story of Sally Bowles set amid the Berlin nightclub scene of the era, continues to tour throughout North America (and will play Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall in a scant few weeks). And Street Theatre Company presents a concert version of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera (which debuted at the height of the dizzying decadence of the Weimar republic in 1928) through February 17, opening the company's 2018 season with a deft blend of panache and intrigue that bodes well for STC under the leadership of new artistic director Randy Craft.
(That Nashville Ballet this weekend presents the premiere of a Holocaust-themed ballet is not lost on me, either, only adding to this weird, even bizarre, sense of serendipity informing the scheduling of live performances in February 2018.)
The selection of The Threepenny Opera to inaugurate Street's 2018 season is one of the year's most eagerly anticipated theatrical events in Music City - thanks in part to the fact that it may well be the first home-grown staging of Brecht and Weill's parody of operetta that, in turn, skewers capitalistic society while touting socialist, even Troskyite, values in the guise of a rather farcical music hall diversion. Does it succeed? The answer is "yes," perhaps even an emphatic "YES!" although one must pay close attention to the lyrics for the punch of the political set amidst a story that, on the surface, seems somewhat apolitical in tone, style and nature.
In fact, some 90 years after its premiere in Germany (in 1928), The Threepenny Opera somehow defies conventional description. Thus, while some audience members are delighted by the comedic overtones of the "play with music" - as Brecht, himself, described it - others will delve more deeply to discover a show rife with political commentary and more resonance that ensures the Street Theatre Company production seems knowingly, if oddly, prescient at this particular juncture of our contemporary history. Certainly, the lives of the poor remain sharply in contrast to those of the rich, and The Threepenny Opera (at times cynical, at others heartfelt and authenic), therefore, has a timeless appeal that has the power to rivet one to his or her seat as the fanciful tale of Macheath (known to both his admirers and detractors as "Mack the Knife," thanks to Marc Blitzstein's English translation of the original German text) unfolds onstage.
The very fact the show continues to resonate with audiences is testament to theater's ability to transform and transport, and the continued debate about whether The Threepenny Opera is opera or musical theatre or something else entirely ensures its relevance and provides reason enough for it to continue to be performed for generations to come. The material remains controversial, as well, perhaps because its genesis is not completely verifiable: Brecht's lover Elizabeth Hauptman initially started the adaptation of the piece (inspired by John Gay's 18th century The Beggar's Opera), only to have it co-opted by Brecht, who subsequently became known as its primary author. Its worldwide acclaim, which is admittedly justifiable, makes it an appealing choice, though not perhaps the most popular or widely known selection of its kind.
Director Craft has assembled an impressive group of actors and singers to bring the story to life and the equally noteworthy efforts of music director Mains ensures that the score - a blend of operatic styles, along with some jazz influences and a sense of Weimar era nightclub dance music - is interpreted with style and deference, though never does it seem reverential or outdated. Rather, it seems abundantly alive and current. Weimar Germany is having its moment, both onstage and off-, it would seem.
In an ensemble that includes a bevy of familiar musical theater faces - Patrick Kramer, DeWayne Benn, Blake Holliday, LaDarra Jackal, Morgan Lamberth and David Ridley (in a confident turn as Macheath) and Belmont University Musical Theatre's Imari Thompson, Lucas Beckett and Ginny Swanson - there are found some interesting, fresher faces heretofore unknown to me. Performances that define the term "show-stopping" include Queena Stewart's take on Jenny Driver, Rebekah Alexander's wonderfully tarty Lucy Brown and Natalie Rankin's rather sedate (if only in comparison to Stewart and Alexander, truth be told) portrayal of Polly Peachum, whose rendition of "Pirate Jenny" is appealing, even if it begs comparison to other, more iconic, versions by better known artists.
Act Two's "Jealousy Duet," so engagingly (even raucously) performed by Alexander and Rankin, may be the production's musical highlight, the two women showing off their talents to best advantage. Alexander's glorious soprano and Rankin's noteworthy mezzo makes the moment an altogether buzzworthy one.
Cameron Bortz delivers a forceful and well-articulated performance as the "street singer" entrusted with the role of delivering "Mack the Knife" to set the stage, as it were, for the performance that follows. Bortz succeeds admirably, lending the musical standard a refreshing update which nonetheless hews close to its origins.
Mains' musicians do justice to the show's score, sounding for all the world like a music hall combo from the show's original era, which is to be expected. After all, Nashville is Music City. Craft's blocking of the show's various and sundry scenes, by comparison, oftentimes seems workmanlike and uninspired - but this is a concert staging, after all, so you can't expect a lot of theatrical wizardry - but he shows flashes of imagination and wit at particular moments that indicate a good deal of promise for STC's future with him at the helm.
Certainly, the choice of The Threepenny Opera to open a new season under the guidance of a new artistic director already had us in Craft's corner and we can't wait to see what else is ahead as the new era unfolds.
The Threepenny Opera. Book and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht. Music by Kurt Weill. English adaptation by Marc Blitzstein. Presented by Street Theatre Company in a "Concert Hall Series" staging. Directed by Randy Craft. Music direction by Rollie Mains. At Holy Trinity Community Church, 6727 Charlotte Pike, Nashville. Through February 17. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (with two 10-minute intermissions).