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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

The Threepenny Opera
Signature Theatre

Also see Susan's review of Underneath the Lintel


Erin Driscoll, Thomas Adrian Simpson and
Mitchell Jarvis

The Threepenny Opera is a classic work of musical theater that is difficult to get right, with Bertolt Brecht's incendiary political message lurking beneath a layer of humor and Kurt Weill's insinuating songs. Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, has gathered a powerful cast for a strong production that places the action in a near-future London overwhelmed with crime, homelessness, and poverty while a few live in comfort. (The authors of the 1928 work set the play at the time of Queen Victoria's coronation in 1837; the source material, John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, premiered in 1728.)

Translators Robert David MacDonald (dialogue) and Jeremy Sams (lyrics) give a much darker cast to Brecht's story of the master criminal Macheath (Mitchell Jarvis) than the familiar Marc Blitzstein translation that had a long Off-Broadway run in the 1950s. Director-choreographer Matthew Gardiner sets the stage at once with Natascia Diaz's biting version of "The Flick Knife Song" (the song known universally as "Mack the Knife"), the first verse of which she performs breathtakingly a cappella.

The production design bombards the audience with stimuli: a stock ticker periodically appears above the stage on Misha Kachman's set, Colin K. Bills' lighting design incorporates neon signage, and Frank Labovitz's costumes range from a demure yellow plaid dress with crinolines to beggars' rags and prostitutes' bras and garters—and lots and lots of very high-heeled shoes. Musical director Gabriel Mangiante ably oversees eight other musicians.

Exhibits in the lobby set up the situation in London: Queen Elizabeth II has died and Prince Charles has abdicated in favor of his son, the new King William V. As crowds gather for the coronation ceremonies, Mr. Peachum (Bobby Smith) tries to maintain his monopoly on "licensed" beggars, as opposed to the ordinary destitute and homeless people horning in on his business. He and Mrs. Peachum (Donna Migliaccio) are equally upset that their daughter Polly (Erin Driscoll) has run away to marry Macheath, although there are a few things about him she doesn't know. One is his long affair with the prostitute Jenny (Diaz); another concerns both Lucy Brown (played in drag by Rick Hammerly) and Lucy's father, Police Commissioner Tiger Brown (John Leslie Wolfe).

Jarvis gives Macheath both a foppish veneer and, underneath, a genuine sense of menace, displayed most strikingly in his stylized "Pimp's Tango" with Diaz. Driscoll looks like a china doll, but she shatters that image with her renditions of "Pirate Jenny" and "Barbara Song." The performances of Smith and Migliaccio, each of whom has received two Helen Hayes Awards, add measurably to the atmosphere where people laugh but the situation is far from funny.

Signature Theatre
The Threepenny Opera
April 22nd - June 1st
A play by Bertolt Brecht, adapted from Elizabeth Hauptmann's German version of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera
Lyrics by Bertolt Brecht
Music by Kurt Weill
English translation of dialogue by Robert David MacDonald
English translation of lyrics by Jeremy Sams
Jenny: Natascia Diaz
Mr. Peachum: Bobby Smith
Mrs. Peachum: Donna Migliaccio
Macheath: Mitchell Jarvis
Tiger Brown: John Leslie Wolfe
Lucy Brown/Ned: Rick Hammerly
Matt of the Mint: Paul Scanlan
Crook-Finger Jake: Sean Fri
Chainsaw Bob: Ryan Sellers
Filch/Weeping-Willow Walter: Aaron Bliden
Jimmy/Nelly: Jessica Thorne
Smith/Reverend Kimball: Thomas Adrian Simpson
Betty: Jamie Eacker
Vixen: Katherine Renee Turner
Directed and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner
Musical director: Gabriel Mangiante
MAX Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave.
Arlington, VA 22206
Ticket Information: 703-820-9771 or 1-800-955-5566 or www.signature-theatre.org


-- Susan Berlin


Photo: Margot Schulman


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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