Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The latest production from the University of Cincinnati College - Conservatory of Music (CCM) in their Kurt Weill Festival is a mainstage production, from the Musical Theatre Department, of The Threepenny Opera. This challenging, unconventional show is given a sharp mounting at CCM and showcases many of the talented students the college so routinely produces.
The Threepenny Opera tells the story of Macheath, the leader of a violent gang in Victorian England. He marries good-girl Polly, despite seeming to have another wife (Lucy) and a previous common-law marriage with a prostitute (Jenny). Polly's father, Mr. Peachum, controls the beggars of London with equal cruelty. Despite Macheath's friendship with the Chief of Police, Mr. Peachum strong arms the police into arresting his un-wanted new son-in-law so that he can be executed.
The collaboration on this show in 1928 by composer Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht (lyrics and book) catapulted both to fame. The music is tension filled and dark, with jazz influences mixed with other styles of the period. Songs such as the opening "Mack the Knife" and "Pirate Jenny" are now standards, but others, including "Barbara Song," Jealousy Duet," "Useless Song," and "Solomon Song," make strong impressions musically and lyrically as well. This English adaptation from the original German is by Marc Blitzstein. Brecht's "epic theater" social commentary on the human condition, capitalism, and moral rights and wrongs is gripping, though purposely ambiguous at times. The "anti-naturalistic" presentation of the story pulls the audience into the story from an intellectual point of reference, though it is difficult to connect to any characters emotionally.
Robin Guarino carefully directs the show with intimate, sharp, and high-stylized urgency, but without going over the top. Guarino has pulled out well-nuanced and committed performances from the cast. The limited choreography by Patti James is apt, and Roger Grodsky provides his typically first-rate abilities leading a skilled 10-piece orchestra.
CCM has double-cast the two leads, with the opening night cast reviewed here. As the anti-hero Macheath, Matt Amira is a capable singer and provides a more refined, less brutal take on the role, which makes Polly's love for him more reasonable. Lauren Roesner sings splendidly as Polly, and shows significant depth with her acting choices. Julian R. Decker is a menacing Mr. Peachum and conveys much in his physical presentation of the character. As Mrs. Peachum, Madeline Lynch is able to be funny and scary at the same time in her mocking of nearly every other person on stage. Hannah Freeman convincingly captures the beaten-down hopelessness and anger of Jenny, and is a powerful vocalist. Emily Schexnaydre is fierce and humorous as Lucy. The remaining supporting players and ensemble do a great job of maintaining their characterizations and high energy throughout.
For this show, CCM has a wonderful guest artist in Tony Award winning scenic designer John Arnone. Arnone's set features a two-level industrial metal structure (which also supports the raised onstage orchestra), plus a wooden back wall and several modular curtains on which various projections are shown. The distressed, rusty-looking metal conveys the rough, dirty world in which these characters reside. The lighting by Alan Hanson is well rendered, and features an effective use of back-lighting and shadows. The costumes by Brittany McManus are 1920s period-appropriate (the show is most often produced in an anachronistic manner fitting to the show's premiere despite its Victorian storyline) and attractive.
The Threepenny Opera is a show meant to challenge the mind and social conscience rather than the heart or funny bone. CCM's production succeeds due to well-suited direction, strong design, and great use of and execution by the talented students of this nationally recognized program. CCM's production runs until March 10, 2013. For tickets and more information, contact the CCM box office at 513-556-4183.-- Scott Cain