Regional Reviews: Boston
The Threepenny Opera
Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill started by adapting John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, an eighteenth century satire on popular entertainment that parodied the bourgeois and also presented a veiled political attack on the prime minister's disregard for the commoners. Their 1928 German update was a not so veiled attack on the emerging Fascist government. The setting was still London, though updated to the time of Queen Victorian's coronation, but the language reflected Berlin slang and the music was jazz inspired.
The MacDonald/Sams adaptation pushes the time ahead to the future King William's coronation. The result is Sweeney Todd meets Cabaret with a little AbFab thrown in. Lombardo used this new version as a jumping off point. He spearheaded a collective creative effort to stamp it with the angst and anxieties of our particular time, even bringing things right up to date with a reference to the "orange threat level."
Scenic designer Peter Colao and costume designer Frances Nelson McSherry give us an abandoned, decrepit theatre occupied by a performance company of squatters. Awakened by the sound of low-flying helicopters, they don bits of costumes, scavenge for props and tune their instruments. Gradually the audience's attention is focused on the activity, and we become the observers of the story they must tell.
Lombardo, along with his music director Todd C. Gordon and choreographer Kelli Edwards, has taken pains to create a performing style that places familiar entertainment idioms and conventions up against Brecht's precepts of "epic theatre." Intentionally throwing us off guard, it invites us to reconsider things. And since this story has no redeeming characters for us to "identify with," no rightful justice and no "moral" for us to take away, we can only respond by awakening our own understandings and going away with a renewed desire to consider the alternatives to doing nothing to rectify the wrongs of our society.
We're helped along on this strange journey by a top-notch group of actors, many reunited from Lombardo's Sweeney Todd. Todd Alan Johnson, who was a magnificent Sweeney, returns as the notorious murderer, rapist and womanizer, the cultural icon Macheath. Macheath is at the top of his game - and so is Johnson - cool like a bad guy from Pulp Fiction.
Macheath raises the ire of the king and queen of the London street sub-culture, Mr. and Mrs. Peachum, when he brazenly marries their daughter Polly. Paul D. Farwell (Judge Turpin) and Nancy E. Carroll (Mrs. Lovett) have returned to play the loathsome in-laws. They do so with a bizarre but delightful touch of Red Skelton and Red Skelton on amphetamines, respectively.
Polly Peachum is played by the lovely Susan Malloy (busy in Side Show while Sweeney was running last spring), who teams up with Stacey Cervellino as Lucy Brown, the other "Mrs. Macheath," to raise the rafters with an opera parody called "Jealousy Duet" delivered in front of Macheath's jail cell.
But the best of the best is Leigh Barrett (The Beggar Woman in Sweeney) as Pirate Jenny, the whore who betrays Macheath. Lucky for us, in this version Jenny sings "The Flick Knife Song" ("Mack the Knife" to those of us who remember Bobby Darin.) Lombardo wisely places this song at the top of the show, rather than two thirds of the way in as the Donmar recording indicates. The depth and breadth of Barrett's vocal abilities and style never ceases to amaze. Fans of her performance in Jacques Brel is Alive and Well ... won't want to miss The Threepenny Opera where she proves that singing Kurt Weill is like taking the training wheels off of Brel.
The Threepenny Opera now through February 8th at the New Repertory Theatre, 54 Lincoln Street in Newton Highlands (on the Riverside D - Green Line.) Performances are Wednesdays at 2pm & 7pm; Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 4:30pm & 8:30pm and Sundays at 3pm & 7:30pm. Tickets are priced from $27-$45; Senior, student and group discounts are available. For tickets and further information: www.newrep.org or 617-332-1646.
Unquestionably, the most compelling reason to see Bad Dates at the Huntington Theatre is Julie White's performance. She's totally winning in this one-woman play about a misplaced Texan entering the New York City dating fray after a sabbatical inventing a career and raising her daughter. Written specifically for White by Theresa Rebeck, the playwright appears to have carefully and lovingly tailored the character of Haley to suit Ms. White's quirks, charms and talents.
Although both women have made a mark in television (White in continuing roles on Six Feet Under and Grace Under Fire; Rebeck as a writer/producer for NYPD Blue and Law and Order: Criminal Intent) they also have deep roots in theatre. Most recently, White made Bruce Weber's 2003 Top Ten List for Barbra's Wedding and Bad Dates (in last summer's premiere at Playwright's Horizons) . Rebeck's most recent work, a post-9/11 satire, Omnium Gatherum (co-written with Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros), would have been a more ambitious choice for Nicholas Martin when he reshuffled his season to accommodate Nathan Lane's schedule and dropped Jon Robin Baitz' play A Paris Letter.
Bad Dates doesn't have much going for it besides being an irresistible character study. Having gotten along in life so far with pluck and luck, Haley discovers she doesn't have the same knack for picking a partner as she did for falling into a successful career. She may be an "idiot savant" when it comes to restaurant management, but she's an idiot, plain and simple, when it comes to judging the men she dates.
Scratch the surface and underneath you'll find Carrie Bradshaw or Bridget Jones, a little bit older but none the wiser. Better to curl up at home and watch a string of Sex and the City episodes or Bridget Jones' Diary on DVD than venture out for ninety minutes of well crafted, but not very satisfying theatre.
Part of the blame for this is the ill-conceived notion that the Huntington main stage is a good fit for an intimate conversation with a woman dressing for dates in her inexplicably large Manhattan bedroom. A smaller setting would at least give more audience members a close up view of the astonishing collection of designer shoes Haley is so eager to show us.
But changing the venue can't solve other problems inherent in a one-character piece. The phone quickly becomes an overused device, and conversing with an offstage teenager loudly enough for us to hear over the sounds emanating from her bedroom across the hall is cute only the first couple of times.
Admittedly, the transitions to allow for a passage of time and a change of underwear are handled with aplomb thanks to the terrific jazzy music so reminiscent of romantic film comedies from the sixties with inexplicably large Manhattan bedrooms. In some respects, Bad Dates makes about as much sense as, and certainly shares the same sensibility as, those beloved Doris Day or Audrey Hepburn movies, but why expect more of it? If the purpose was to provide a vehicle for Jane White, then Theresa Rebeck has certainly done her job.
Bad Dates at the Huntington Theatre through February 1st. Performances are Tuesday - Thursday at 7:30pm (excluding January 13th); Friday and Saturday at 8pm; Sundays at 7pm (excluding January 25th and February 1st); Saturday and Sunday at 2pm and Wednesday at 2pm (January 14th and 21st only). Tickets range from $14 to $64. For tickets or information, call the Huntington Box Office at 617-266-0800 or visit their Web site at www.huntingtontheatre.org.
- Suzanne Bixby