The historic musical theater work The Threepenny Opera is not an unfamiliar title. But I’d wager you’ve never seen it, because the 1928 piece by playwright Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill is better known today for its influence on more contemporary musicals such as Cabaret and Urinetown. That’s too bad, because it’s a powerful, iconic piece in its own right. It’s receiving an authentic, compelling production at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music.
If you doubt the show’s timeliness, let me just cite one line: “Who is the greater criminal: he who robs a bank or he who founds one?” That sounds like something that could have been written recently. And if you think the music will be unfamiliar, let me point out that the show’s most memorable number is “Mack the Knife.” In fact, the jazzy score is stuffed with sarcastic but catchy melodies that will sound like tunes you’ve heard before.
The story, set in a fictional Victorian London, is relatively simple: Peachum, the criminal boss of London’s beggars, extorts protection money from downtrodden panhandlers. When his daughter Polly marries the notorious gangster Macheath (aka “Mack the Knife”), Peachum and his equally vile wife vow to destroy him, using bribery and other underhanded tactics, including a threat to unleash all the beggars in London on the day of Queen Victoria’s coronation. The charismatic Mack is captured, sent to prison and sentenced to the gallows — only to be pardoned at the last moment by the Queen.
The production, directed by Robin Guarino, who chairs the CCM opera program, is visually stunning. The sardonic population of whores, drunken cops, corrupt bosses, thugs and lowlifes (the cast numbers more than two dozen) is gloriously costumed (designer Brittany McManus) in bedraggled suggestive rags, feathers, laces and bowler hats — sort of slutty, shabby chic. (The show is rife with lewd references and suggestive sexual behavior.)
Scenic designer John Arnone, a Tony Award winner, was recruited to provide an environment of catwalks and plywood-paneled walls (plastered with shreds of German posters). A wire across the stage is a runner for a gauzy horizontal curtain, used to project scene titles, then swiftly drawn aside for action. A 10-musician orchestra, in period costumes and conducted by Roger Grodsky, plays the show’s spirited score from a platform behind and above the action. Overhead are a number of rope-slung elements, including a piano, furniture and bags of rags, unpacked by the beggars in Peachum’s warehouse.
Guarino has imbued the production with stylized movement and a sardonic attitude that perfectly convey disdain for the worlds of capitalism, law and order. It’s a tale of the survival of the fittest, and the charming Mack (Matt Amira and Max Clayton alternate in this role) sits atop the corrupt heap. The Peachums (outstanding performances by Julian R. Decker and Madeline Lynch) steal most every scene they are in: He shuffles, she poses and both ruthlessly dominate — they embody the corruption of business. Their “pure” daughter Polly (Lauren Roesner and Christine Cornish Smith in the production’s other double-cast role) shows her heartless mettle in the song “Pirate Jenny” and when she takes over Mack’s business when he decides to skip out.
Threepenny Opera provides numerous opportunities for featured performances. Hannah Freeman’s sullen Jenny, Mack’s former lover, is brittle and stealthy, while Emily Schexnaydre is Lucy Brown, another onetime flame, has a sassy sense of biting humor. The feisty “Jealousy Duet” between Lucy and Polly, with Mack observing from his prison cell, is a highlight.
Greg Kamp, as Mack’s Army buddy turned corrupt police chief Tiger Brown, presides over a force of inept (often inebriated) officers, and Josh S. Smith is Filch, a downtrodden beggar bullied into Peachum’s ranks. Providing much humor is a zany quartet of crooks who constitute Mack’s gang — Readymoney Matt (DJ Plunkett), Crookfinger Jake (John Battagliese), Bob the Saw (Adam Zeph) and Walt Dreary (Erik Hernandez). Their set-up of Mack and Polly’s wedding quickly draws the audience into the production’s off-kilter humor.
Brecht and Weill’s show was a hit in Germany until the Nazis, who despised its subversive messages about authoritarian leadership, banned it in 1933. By that time it had been translated into 18 languages and performed thousands of times throughout Europe. This CCM production is an engaging if sordid recreation of the creators’ intentions, a bravura performance that serves as a reminder of how theater can provide sharp social commentary. Bravo to Guarino and her student cast for this memorable production.
THE THREEPENNY OPERA, presented by UC’s College-Conservatory of Music, continues through March 10.