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BWW Reviews: THE THREEPENNY OPERA from Seattle Shakespeare Company

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Seattle Shakespeare Company is currently presenting their first ever foray into musical theater with "The Threepenny Opera".  A show that seasoned musical theater companies would have difficulty with; this typically Shakespearean company in their 20th year handles it with vision, humor and heart.

Translated by Marc Blitzstein, this Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill musical tells the tale of some of the less desirable elements of London in 1837 around the time of Queen Victoria's Coronation.  But the Coronation only serves as a backdrop to this glimpse into the social and political goings on of this seedy underbelly of London as we examine the microcosm of beggars, thieves and whores.  Centered mainly around the leader of the thieves, Macheath, or Mack the Knife (John Bogar), is the most feared and wanted man in London.  So when Mackie decides to marry Polly (Allison Standley), her parents Mr. JJ. Peachum (Russell Hodgkinson) and Mrs. Peachum (Jayne Muirhead), the leaders of the beggars, devise a plan to get Mackie arrested and hung rather than see their daughter coupled with such a low life.  But Mackie has the Commissioner of Police, Tiger Brown (Hugh Hastings), in his employ as well as his daughter Lucy (Gina Marie Russell) in his sway.  But the Peachums blackmail Brown into arresting Mackie and enlist the aid of Jenny (Julie Briskman), the leader of the whores, to give him up to the police as he makes his weekly visit to her and her ladies.  With more thinly veiled violence and sex than you can shake a jackknife at, the show is melodrama with an edge. 

Containing some of the most famously covered songs from the musical theater canon ("Mack the Knife" has been covered by the likes of Bobby Darin, Michael Buble and Frank Sinatra; "Pirate Jenny" by Nina Simone and Judy Collins and "What Keeps Mankind Alive" by the Pet Shop Boys and Tom Waits) it's a wonder that this show is so rarely dusted off.  Many people know of the show but so few have actually seen it.  But it's a small wonder since the show is difficult at best and dark and gritty and long (two hours and 45 minutes).  But even at its darkest the show manages to keep its humor and is in essence a satire of itself with its theatrical and self referential style.

The cast deftly handles portraying these complex characters with ease and skill.  Many times a problem musicals have is that the actors have pretty voices but aren't the strongest actors.  Well it seems director Stephanie Shine and music director Daryl Spadaccini managed to find people who not only have incredible acting chops but voices to match.  Bogar is eerily wonderful as the eponymous Mack the Knife and his "Death Message" was mesmerizing.  Hodgkinson and Muirhead were hilariously conniving as the back stabbing Peachums.  Standley and Russell brought the house down with their "Jealousy Duet".  And Hastings was not only sycophantically brilliant as Commissioner Brown but also started the tone of the show off perfectly as he introduced us to this world as the Street Singer with his rendition of "Mack the Knife".  But the stand out for me of the night was Briskman with her imposing yet broken Jenny.  As viciously comedic as Standley's rendition of "Pirate Jenny" was, equally heart wrenching was Briskman's reprise of it as she relives her own tragic past.  I've been fortunate enough to see Briskman in a number of things including ACT's glorious production of "The Women" and she never fails to completely command whatever stage she is on. 

All in all Seattle Shakes revival of this little done show is an absolute triumph.  And whether you're looking to fill that gap in your theatrical knowledge or just want a completely engaging if not always nice evening of musical theater then you've found a winner with "The Threepenny Opera".  But then, as they say, "Art isn't nice."

"The Threepenny Opera" from Seattle Shakespeare Company plays at Seattle's Intiman Theatre through March 6th.  For tickets or information contact the Seattle Shakespeare Company box office at 206-733-8222 or visit them online at www.seattleshakespeare.org.

Photo Credit: John Ulman

 


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