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The Threepenny Opera

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Ah, the delightful scent of authenticity!

After a number of recent imitators, high profile and low, and of varying degrees of success, the real thing has returned to New York on the Jean Cocteau Repertory stage. This new production of The Threepenny Opera, with book and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht (adapted for English by Marc Blitzstein) and a score by Kurt Weill, cuts through the parody and the homage and presents the show that started at all.

The show itself, an adaptation of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, is spiritually fulfilling in its unique style and daring; at once clearly of its time and still thoroughly applicable to ours. This makes it theatre in the rawest, truest sense: a blistering, confrontational, thought-provoking examination of the struggle between the classes.

Regardless, the story comes through, and is timeless enough to feel fresh and relevant today. The powerful and villainous Macheath (Chad A. Suitts) newly married to the young Polly Peachum (Amy Lee Williams), her parents (Angus Hepburn and Marlene May) and the outrageous lengths to which they will go to throw a wrench into their union, and the various people of the streets who are all on the take and willing to switch their allegiances at a moment's notice. Director David Fuller keeps Brecht's lines between "good" and "evil" blurred, and doesn't sacrifice the story's vital elements about, for example, legislating over the poor in his conception.

He does tend to dull the show's immediacy and full impact somewhat with the theatrical metaphor he's applied to his staging, however: All the audience sees of Roman Tatarowicz's set before the show begins in earnest is a false proscenium and curtain, which are soon absorbed into a representation of nineteenth-century London as filtered through a theater's backstage. Simple set frames, drops, and miscellaneous props create the scenery and the performers' costumes (designed by Joanne Haas) are primarily suggestive bits and pieces worn over street clothes.

The idea works visually, but adds little to the show at a thematic level. Then again, material this strong can survive even moderately misguided production concepts, and that's about the worst that can be said of Fuller's work. He's assembled a fine team of performers and got them working like well-oiled cogs here - the show moves swiftly, misses few laughs, and leaves an indelible impression, even when familiarity could easily reduce it.

Regardless, when the first song - "The Ballad of Mack the Knife" - starts, with Suitts bathed in Giles Hogya's jagged lighting, chills up the spine are unavoidable. This show and this production have the power to transcend the familiarity of even this well-hewn (and often Vegas-infused) standard. Nor do any of the others songs - less well known but almost all thematically familiar - suffer that fate. Everything here is seamlessly integrated.

So are the performers. Suitts is a dynamic, often frightening presence onstage, with a strong voice and a keen comic sense. Williams's work as Polly is a bit more labored, but still effective, and she gets a few fine moments of her own when barreling through the dark "Pirate Jenny" in the first act, or the acidically comic "Jealousy Duet" in the second. (That she sings with the fine Natalie Ballesteros, playing Lucy, another of Macheath's conquests.) The other major women are May as Mrs. Peachum and Elise Stone as the street whore Jenny, who's not afraid to betray Macheath, and they're both fine, if sometimes unsteady vocally. The rest of the company well complements them all dramatically, comedically, and musically.

If this production of The Threepenny Opera can't ideally capture every element Brecht infused the show with, it gets enough of it excitingly right to drive the classic show home. Fuller and the Jean Cocteau Rep deserve acclaim for reclaiming the Brecht/Weill style for Brecht and Weill and audiences who may not know what they've been missing.

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Jean Cocteau Repertory
The Threepenny Opera
Through November 23
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes with two ten-minute intermissions
Bouwerie Lane Theatre, 330 Bowery, at Bond East 2nd Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.677.0060