The 1994 Donmar Warehouse production of Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera featured a new lyric translation by Jeremy Sams. The lyrics were a welcome departure from the well-known Marc Blitzstein translation. Listen to the CD, and you’ll hear lyrics that are dark, brutal and edgy. Sams’ lyrics give the show an intensity and an in-your-face quality that makes Brecht’s social commentary more immediate to modern audiences.
For the Open Fist Theatre Company’s production, Sams’ lyrics have been, according to the program notes, “carefully adapted” by Keith Bernstein. Bernstein has Americanized Sams’ lyrics and, in many cases, dumbed them down. Macheath’s “flick-knife” has become a “switchblade,” Sams’s intelligent use of the word “sluice” has been replaced by the less precise “flush,” and the ear- (and nose-) catching “offal” is now the more pedestrian “shit.” Some of Bernstein’s lyric changes are fine - the changes to the jaunty-yet-violent “Cannon Song,” which now suggest recent American military activity, serve a purpose and are therefore acceptable. But the bulk of Bernstein’s changes seem to have no purpose except to make absolutely certain the lyrics are completely understandable to any idiot who might happen to be in the audience. While accessibility is a laudable goal, it comes at the price of Sams’ lyrical precision and well-crafted imagery. In most cases, Bernstein should have left well enough alone.
Not only has Open Fist taken the edge off Sams’ lyrics, but the entire production seems somewhat routine. It isn’t that there’s anything particularly bad about it; it’s just that the production doesn’t really grab you by the neck and shake, although it seems to want to.
The problem is demonstrated by the performance of Bjørn Johnson as Macheath. Despite a somewhat shaky start, Johnson, like the rest of the cast, has no problems singing the score, and he actually has a few surprisingly powerful notes. But there’s nothing special about his Macheath. The book and lyrics suggest Macheath is larger than life, a notorious criminal who is frequently spotted at the most luxurious spots in London - but Johnson’s Macheath is nothing but a two-bit crook, and Johnson gives us no indication of any sort of elegant charm or dark charisma which might explain how Macheath has managed to seduce half the women in London. Johnson also puts a little too much effort into enunciating each of his words - again, performance seems to take a back seat to simply getting the words across.
The edge is also missing from Tish Hicks’s portrayal of Jenny, the prostitute who once lived with Macheath and now betrays him. In the Donmar Warehouse production, “Pirate Jenny” was restored to the character of Polly, but “Moritat” (the song known as “Mack the Knife”) was given to Jenny in its place. The trade was a reasonable one, because Sams’ translation of “Moritat” erases all memories of a swinging Bobby Darin and replaces them with a cold-hearted catalogue of Macheath’s crimes, sung by a woman who has also suffered at his hands. Open Fist gives “Moritat” back to a narrator at the top of the show. As a result, Hicks never gets an opportunity to show the anger simmering beneath Jenny’s emotionless facade, and her Jenny is sadly one-dimensional.
The depth in this production comes in surprising places. When Josie Gundy first appears as Polly Peachum, her girlish gown, blonde curls, and dim demeanor suggest a caricature of the sweet girl corrupted by Macheath. But when Polly pretends to be the girl she isn’t and sings “Pirate Jenny,” there’s something chilling in her eyes as Polly revels in being both virgin and whore at once, suggesting there’s a lot more to this Polly than we thought. This is confirmed when she sings “Barbara Song,” the explanation for how a nice girl who always says “no” finds herself saying “yes” to the wrong man. Gundy doesn’t play “Barbara Song” as a song of regret by a fallen woman; it is instead Polly’s triumphant attack on her parents’ moral values. Gundy’s Polly throws “Barbara Song” in her parents’ faces, and it makes her character the biggest player in all the games people play in Threepenny Opera.
David Castellani is also solid as Mr. Peachum. He doesn’t go for broad comedy in his portrayal of the businessman who makes money by organizing all the beggars in town. There’s something in his performance that’s reminiscent of Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka - Castellani’s Peachum knows he’s living in an upside-down world, but he’s going to take it completely seriously. And Castellani’s Peachum is genuinely concerned when he learns that his daughter has run off with the most notorious man in London, earning him audience sympathy - which, although good for Castellani, may not be exactly what Brecht had intended.
Problems also arise with A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s costumes, which are simultaneously not dirty enough (the beggars’ rags are oddly clean) and too dirty (the prostitutes are literally bursting out of their tops). Kitty McNamee’s choreography frequently has the cast jerking around like marionettes on strings. As an attempt at Brechtian distancing, it can’t be faulted in concept; however, it looks a little silly. At one point in “A Pimp’s Tango,” Macheath mimes rocking a baby in his arms, an act which is so completely contradicted by the lyrics he’s about to sing, it is wildly inappropriate.
It is disappointing that, even with the stellar translation of Jeremy Sams and a company of good singers able to solidly sing Kurt Weill’s music, Open Fist was not able to come up with a knock-‘em-dead production of Threepenny Opera. Ultimately, this production could have - and should have - been so much more.
The Threepenny Opera runs at Open Fist in Hollywood through June 12, 2005. www.openfist.org.
The Open Fist Theatre Company presents The Threepenny Opera. Play with music after John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Music by Kurt Weill; German Translation by Elisabeth Hauptmann; Adaptation & Lyrics by Bertolt Brecht; English Translation of the book by Robert David MacDonald; English Translation of the lyrics by Jeremy Sams; Additional Text by Keith Alan Bernstein. Directed by R. Charles Otte; Musical Direction by Dean Mora; Choreography by Kitty McNamee. Produced by Anne Marie Gillen & Martha Demson. Stage Manager Ina Russell; Assistant Director Dara Weinberg; Scenic Design Bill Eigenbrodt and Meghan Rogers; Costume Design A. Jeffrey Schoenberg; Sound Design Peter Carlstedt; Light Design R. Charles Otte; Props Melane Chapman and Pam Heffler; Production Manager Aaron Lyons; House Manager Ben Burdick; Light Board Operator Peter Vance; Spot Light Operator Spenser Jones.