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BWW Reviews: Signature's THE THREEPENNY OPERA is Modern, Relevant, and Superbly Executed

DC audiences looking for a socially and politically charged and exceedingly well-presented musical should probably look no further than Signature Theatre's modern take on the Bertolt Brecht (book/lyrics) and Kurt Weill's (music) classic, The Threepenny Opera, itself based on The Beggar's Opera. Known mostly as a hotspot for world premiere contemporary musicals and as a master of the Sondheim cannon, Signature looks a bit farther back in history with this offering from early 20th century Germany.

Due to the timeless message that underlies the biting story, Director/Choreographer Matthew Gardiner's fresh take on interpreting it, and a fabulous cast that's more than up to the challenge to taking on some seedy individuals, the Signature production allows us to see the classic in a new light and consider its relevancy for today. A classic - I might add - that features one of the greatest musical scores, but also one that offers a starting point for further discussion on socioeconomic issues impacting American society today.

There are several English language translations of The Threepenny Opera floating around. Signature is using the Robert David MacDonald (dialog) and Jeremy Sams (lyrics) translation, which has also been used at the venerable Donmar Warehouse in London as well as other esteemed venues around the globe. This version is peppered with modern references - Olympic Ice Dance Champions Torvill and Dean are among those mentioned - profanity, and British slang. It's probably among the hippest and darkest of the Threepenny offerings I've encountered.

Overall, it's a good decision on Gardiner's part to use this version. It does not completely eliminate an unfortunate situation of the overall book being inferior to the overall score (always a selling point), or rid of us of some lagging moments in the latter part of Act One. Yet, the translation is very accessible and likely to strike a chord with a younger, contemporary audience; it - along with Signature's interpretation of it - does not render the story unrecognizable, but gives it new meaning.

The story, of course, is a familiar one. Those that 'have' are content to exploit those that 'have not.' Competing interests collide with one another, and one man's gain is another's loss.

So there's Mr. Peachum (Bobby Smith). He is the ultimate rational capitalist, completely ok with the moral complexities inherent in his practice of exploiting and organizing the underprivileged beggars in London for personal gain with his wife by his side (Donna Migliaccio). When Mr. Peachum's coddled daughter Polly (Erin Driscoll) goes off and marries Macheath (Mitchell Jarvis) - a well-known military-man-turned-criminal - without permission, he's not exactly pleased and neither is his wife. Image? Well, such a move by his daughter won't help in his pursuit of his own goals. Or will it?

Thus, he does what every good power-hungry person with resources would do in that situation and sets out to get Macheath arrested and hung using all available means at his disposal. Macheath, however, has his own set of resources, which he also is more than happy to leverage to get what he wants - something obviously different than what Peachum wants. He has a band of brothers - underemployed, street-smart young people content to fight against the establishment and expectations of 'what's right' - a few female 'friends,' and an in with law enforcement as a holdover from his days serving his country in Afghanistan. As this competition over 'I wants' heats up, even more opportunities for everyone to exploit the ugly situation for personal gain arise. The answer to the question of who/what wins and what 'winning' means in these kind of situations is far from a clear, straightforward one, itself providing a foundation for further discussion about a debate that's raged for centuries.

By setting the timeless story in modern, dirty London and making full use of technology (look no farther than Rocco Disanti's purposeful video designs and multiple uses of smartphones with cameras for some examples) Gardiner allows us appreciate the enduring tale in the context of today's fast paced, ultra-competitive world.

Mac's band of friends represents a new kind of underclass - one that may not have significant resources, but is determined to make others take notice by following and rejecting 'social trends' in a way that not be completely expected. Mr. Peachum and his family represent another world - one that puts on a nice showing for the masses, but has a grittier and more ruthless edge underneath the conservative and refined fashion choices. They're not so different from each other despite their different sheens.

Frank Labovitz's costume designs and Misha Kachman's graffiti-filled set are enormously useful tools to draw us completely into the worlds we probably think we don't know, but we really do. Colin K. Bills' dim lighting design also enhances the seedy atmosphere.

Cast-wise, this show offers a truly career-altering way for Erin Driscoll to prove she's very much one of DC's most attention worthy leading ladies right now. A longstanding contributor to many a local musical, she's excelled a number of times in supporting ingénue roles at Signature, as well as several other reputable venues. Yet, coming off a strong showing as Violet in Ford Theatre's production of the show of the same name, she proves one more time here that she's more than up to the challenge of taking on grittier, messier, and more complex roles and making them work - something that people might not expect from her when they look at the kinds of roles she's been cast in before. Her "Pirate Jenny" is the kind of performance that makes one take notice, not only because it is so technically well sung, but the way she fully emotionally and physically inhabits her more-than-meets-the-eye character during the song. She continues this trend through the rest of the show. Her "Barbara's Song" is also revelatory - making full use of her lilting soprano voice, that can be light and airy at one moment and textured and powerful the next - as are her duets with Jarvis and the darkly comedic force that is Rick Hammerly (as Lucy - Macheath's other 'lover'). She also holds her own in the book scenes and shows her versatility as an actress. Truly, it's her best performance to date. She's reason enough to see the show.

Other cast members also make an impression. Bobby Smith, per usual, is appropriately slimy and smarmy as Mr. Peachum and together with the strong voiced musical comedy talent Donna Migliaccio, they complement each other nicely. Songstress Natascia Diaz (Jenny) starts off the show very well with an intense and really well sung rendition of "The Flick Knife Song." Diaz is always a standout singer in any production and she continues the trends in this case, selling every song she's given with palpable emotion, impeccable vocal technique and control, and vocal power.

On the less positive side, while the casting of Macheath usually is a crucial decision to determine the success of any production of The Threepenny Opera, interestingly enough, I do not think Mitchell Jarvis added or detracted from this one. He is just, well, there. On the night I attended, he was appropriately confident and charismatic as Macheath at some points in the show - particularly early in Act One - but I didn't really get a feel for the complexities of his character and was not always drawn to watching him. He faded into the scenery a bit during the singing moments and got lost in the shuffle in the many group scenes, including the climactic ending one where his character is unfortunately a focal point. It could that I caught him on an off night or that he's still finding his character throughout the whole of the show. It's entirely possible there's performance within him waiting to happen. His performance is by no means a bad one, just not one that's nearly as exceptional as Ms. Driscoll's, which makes it somewhat challenging to be affected by his plight.

A strong ensemble rounds out the show and is key ingredient for its overall success. Strong singers, actors, and movers, these cast members are crucial to bringing us into the underbelly of London. Eight stellar musicians under the direction of Gabriel Mangiante do justice to Weill's varied score, playing it in an energetic and ever-present way and complementing the talented singers.

Overall, I found this production to be the best 'sounding' Signature musical since Company, musically-speaking.

Dark and edgy is what Signature does best and this is no exception.

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including an intermission.

"The Threepenny Opera" plays through June 1, 2014 at Signature Theatre - 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, VA. For tickets call the box office at 703-820-9771 or purchase them online.

Pictured: Polly Peachum (Erin Driscoll) sings "Pirate Jenny" in "The Threepenny Opera," now playing at Signature Theatre through June 1, 2014. Photo by Margot Schulman.

From This Author - Jennifer Perry

Jennifer Perry is a Contributor to, and former Assignment Coordinator for, BroadwayWorld.Com's DC page.  She has been a DC resident since 2001 having moved from Upstate New York to attend... (read more about this author)