Threepenny Opera is an iconic piece of theatre. Why it is above so many other works I couldn’t say. We humans are complicated and lack reason. We are fickle, and our choices often defy logic. We choose our extremes – what is revered and what is reviled – we put our foot down and stick to our story. The fact that our choices may be based on the 100th monkey theory is of no matter.Ah. Perhaps I just explained why Threepenny is what it is to us. Brecht and Weil have created a show that encapsulates all of the above. A cutthroat dandy by the name of Macheath (Michael Park) aka Mack the Knife, slithers through the belly of London breaking hearts and bones. He is a living myth without equal and without challengers. Even the police commissioner Tiger Brown (Rick Holmes) is in Mackie’s pocket. Considering that his very own daughter Lucy (Lilli Cooper) is “married” to Mackie and carrying his child. Everything is pretty swell for Mackie until he steps just over a certain boundary into the territory of one Mr. Peachum (F. Murray Abraham) and makes a conquest out of Peachum’s daughter Polly (Laura Osnes). He “marries” Polly in a barn decked out with pilfered trappings of the best sort. While Peachum fears Mackie as much as the next man, this transgression is too great. He and Mrs. Peachum (Mary Beth Pell) set about to bring Mackie down in order to free their daughter. Although the commissioner has expunged Mackie’s extensive rap sheet at Scotland Yard, Mackie is nevertheless arrested not once, but twice – the second time as a result of betrayal by his third lover, the prostitute Jenny Diver (Sally Murphy). In a whiplash of a twist, however, the newly minted Queen Victoria pardons Mackie and bestows on him title, property and funds that turn him into the very sort of person against whom he and his peers railed.
This is a story about the poor, the beggars if you will, and their passionate and often violent life. These are people who have nothing to lose so they will not hesitate to risk it all at the least provocation. These are people who live on the edge. Brecht and Weil play us there and ask us to mind the step and keep our balance.
This particular production however, does no such thing. From the opening number, the famous Mack The Knife that is meant to set the scene and wrap its tentacles around our ankles,
Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear
And he shows ’em, pearly white
Just a jack knife has Macheath, dear
And he keeps it, keeps it way out of sight
is overwhelmed with the visual parade of these poor and often half naked (women only) people. The opening narrative is completely subsumed. The rest of the production rolls out and never catches up. Instead of heaving us up in the air and then pitching us down into the depths, the action chugs along at a steady keel. The cast is talented and able. They have style and grace and excellent voices. But they are hamstrung by Ms. Clarke’s direction that asks them to think airy and light instead of heavy and gritty. Abraham’s Peachum is a vaudevillian host that appears to have little to do with the grimy side of life. Park’s Macheath bears a remarkable likeness to Jimmy Cagney – not the gangster, but the George M. Cohan character. He is smooth and charming and not the least bit threatening. If he had tossed in a tap dance routine I would not have been surprised. Osnes’s Polly is a posh young woman with a silver voice and betrays little of the fact that her parents were the Royalty of the Beggar world where she grew up. She is more Mary Poppins that street urchin.
All in all this is a sort of pasteurized version of what was originally raw milk, delivered straight from the beast that made it. There is no cream to curdle. Only the homogenized product is delivered and we are asked to accept this instead of what was intended. This piece was over thought – even the lighting is overdone with 100 plus instruments visible while the musicals rely on a follow spot – and over wrought. It has had the life wrung out of it with the result that it is well intentioned but limp. Even Romeo the bulldog nearly fell asleep while waiting for his tray of biscuits.
The Threepenny Opera
Book and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht; music by Kurt Weill, English adaptation by Marc Blitzstein; directed and choreographed by Martha Clarke; music director, Gary S. Fagin; sets by Robert Israel; costumes by Donna Zakowska; lighting by Christopher Akerlind; sound by Clive Goodwin; conducted by Fred Lassen; music coordinator, Michael Aarons; animals handled by William Berloni; fight director, J. David Brimmer; production stage manager, Johnny Milani; production manager, Michael Wade; associate artistic director, Christian Parker; general manager, Jamie Tyrol. Presented by Atlantic Theater Company, Neil Pepe, artistic director; Jeffory Lawson, managing director. At the Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street, Chelsea, 866-811-4111, atlantictheater.org. Through May 11. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes.
WITH: F. Murray Abraham (Mr. Peachum), Lilli Cooper (Lucy Brown), Rick Holmes (Tiger Brown), John Kelly (Street Singer/Filch), Sally Murphy (Jenny), Laura Osnes (Polly Peachum), Michael Park (Macheath), Mary Beth Pell (Mrs. Peachum), ) and Sophie Bortolussi, Jon David Casey, Lindsey Dietz-Marchant, Timothy Doyle, Cristina Spina, Paola Styron, John William Watkins and Romeo (Ensemble).