The Threepenny Opera
by Lucille de Saint-Andre
I was delighted to see the work of Brecht and Weill, these two intelligent talented musical prophets of the goings on in this lousy old world. Originally set in Victorian London, The Threepenny Opera is presented to a Canadian middle-class audience at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in the Distillery District and runs through to March 10 with matinee and evening performances.
While not as fiery as the original avant-garde 1928 musical satire in Berlin, that brought international fame to dramatist Bertold Brecht, The Threepenny Opera is Soulpepper Theatre Company’s first excursion into the musical comedy whirlpool and comes across "nicely nicely" on the bare brick-walled stage with its multiple exits/entrances.
The underworld types, who have one foot in Berlin and the other in John Gay’s London, made at least one former New Yorker think (for a moment) of Damon Runyon’s raffish Broadway characters.
The cynical social commentary of Bertold Brecht in English is clearly not as witty as the German version, but the haunting melodies of Kurt Weill easily transcend the genre and have lost nothing with the passage of time, staying with you for days afterwards.
Inspired by John Gay’s 1728 The Beggar’s Opera, Threepenny was accomplished in less than six months, said to be with much help from Elizabeth Hauptmann, translator of The Beggar’s Opera and one of Brecht’s lovers. Legend has it that Brecht and Weill created theme song Mack the Knife in a single evening.
Threepenny tells the tale of dashing criminal and underworld hero Macheath (Mackie Messer or Mack the Knife) who marries Polly Peachum to the displeasure of her father, lord of the beggars of London who tries to have Macheath hanged but is hindered by the fact that chief of police Tiger Brown (Stuart Hughes) is Macheath’s childhood friend. Still, Peachum eventually gets MacHeath arrested and sentenced to hang. Happy endings devotees are not disappointed as he narrowly escapes the gallows when the Queen pardons him and grants him a peerage on the eve of her coronation.
This is a deliciously ironic joke that builds very rapidly to the climactic phrase: "hereditary peerage." Very funny but - maybe not as funny as it should be. This is, after all, Toronto!
Overall, the production works fine, from the introduction of young ballad singer d’bi.young.anitafrika’s running commentary to Albert Schultz’ strong and slippery but sometimes graceful Macheath (as in the whorehouse’s tango scene with Jenny), (Schultz is Soulpepper’s artistic director), to William Webster’s Peachum, to his greedy wife, (Nancy Palk) to the pathetic whore Jenny (Sarah Wilson), to Polly (Patricia O’Callaghan). We were very pleased to behold O’Callaghan in person, having previously, on CD, heard her sing the haunting Youkali tango.
On the right hand corner of the stage the musicians under the baton of master of Canadian musical theatre Paul Sporelli perform smoothly on an elevated platform, underlining the comings and goings of the players very much in the "Brechtian" spirit but actors who work so long and hard on their "body language" should maybe be allowed to spend more time on the platform rather than hidden behind it.
In the second week it was still a little rusty as in the Cannon Song when the soldiers march back and forth over a bench but we’re sure it’ll have smoothed out a little later. Webster’s Peachum was somewhat uneven. Mrs. Peachum screechy funny but daughter Polly with her strong voice was right on. Tragic Jenny was touching, especially in the lyrical tango with Macheath, which by now should be super smooth and great in Seeräuberjenny (the Ship with eight sails, Shiff mit acht Segeln und mit 50 Kanonen) phantasy. In Eifersuchtsduett (Jealousy Duet) between Polly and Lucy Brown (Jennifer Villaverde) was very good.
History is never absent, nor very far away, in a production of Die Dreigroschenoper. The Canon Song, for us, always brings to mind the unemployed soldiers who provided the recruits for the Brownshirts.
In 1954 in a small "off-Broadway" theatre (Theater de Lys) on Christopher street in Greenwich village the big draw was Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya. The Marc Blitzstein translation turned out to be a huge success and ran for years. Lenya’s Jenny was a role which she also played in the original production in 1928.
It earned her a Tony.
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