Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Threepenny Opera
Edgy, Brash and Bold
San Jose Stage

Also see Jeanie's review of Little Shop of Horrors, Patrick's review of Boeing Boeing and Richard's review of Die Fledermaus

Johnny Moreno and Monique Hafen
When Bertolt Brecht wrote Threepenny Opera in 1928 Germany, it was raw, raunchy, and even revolutionary, putting prostitutes, pimps and corrupt officials on stage, challenging the tamer fare of mainstream theatre and the illusions of ideology. It's still pretty raw and raunchy in its latest incarnation on San Jose Stage, with the requisite sex, drugs, and debauchery. Although the shock value is mostly non-existent now, the show still packs some punch, with the high intensity and energy of a talented cast carrying the action.

The music by Kurt Weill might arguably be more famous than the book, with "Mack the Knife" one of the most covered songs ever. Never mind that the song's hero Macheath (Johnny Moreno) is an unscrupulous knave, a murderer, philanderer, thief, blackmailer, and all around nasty piece of work—he's got power and charm and more game than is good for him. When he woos and wins Polly Peachum (Monique Hafen), it's for political gain rather than romance, as her father (Paul Myrvhold) runs the hottest beggar/scam operation in town, and Macheath hopes to trump the action.

Or so he explains it to his harem, Jenny Diver (Halsey Varady), Lucy Brown (Allison F. Rich), and the unseen Sukey Tawdry, all of whom love him anyway. His lifelong friend and Lucy's dad, Tiger Brown (Will Springhorn Jr.), is also the police chief, which explains the law's willingness to look the other way for Mackie—until, of course, it can't anymore. When Peachum and his wife (Susan Gundunas) call in their chips with Brown, he's forced to arrest Macheath and schedule a hanging.

No spoilers here—along the way to his fate, we witness inequity galore, the cruelty of a society that doesn't give a damn unless you have money and power. Women are chattel, men are fodder for crime and war, and no one has morals or ethics except the expedient kind.

Brecht was interested in creating a new, political theatre that would expose the status quo for its falsehoods and inadequacies, the idea being to stir the audience to action. It's questionable whether the musical ever had much more than shock value, but it has proved a mainstay of popular theatre, perhaps more for its colorful characters and wonderful cabaret-style music than for its dose of righteous indignation over systemic injustice. I doubt anyone leaves the theatre determined to right social wrongs.

Nevertheless, San Jose Stage has mounted an engaging version with excellent local talent. Hafen is a true standout as Polly; her rendition of "Pirate Jenny" ranks among the best I've heard. Gundunas and Myrvhold comport themselves comically as the Peachums with debauched cheer, sneering at the rabble while gleefully rolling in their own power. Rich and Hafen bring the house down with their "Jealousy Duet," and Rich's crazy Lucy is quite funny. Moreno fails to ignite as Macheath until act two, when he connects with his impending hanging. Varady looks marvelous as Jenny, but spends too much of her songs shouting, making it difficult to understand and listen. She fares better with the "Socrates Song" in act two, which also benefits from original staging.

The entire ensemble does well with the many song and dance numbers, all beautifully staged with choreography by Marybeth Cavanaugh and Brittany Blankenship. Set design by Giulio Perrone opens the stage wide, creating walls evoking both inner city and institution, with clever use of projections and sliding doors. Lighting by Maurice Vercoutere provides stark specials and moody atmosphere, and sound by John Koss nicely allows us to hear actors over the onstage band. Jean Cardinale knocks it out of the park with her costume design; outrageous, funny, wildly colorful, imaginative and silly. Vaguely suggesting mid-20th century, the costumes create a terrific character landscape.

On the downside, there's far too much yelling, as if we need the diatribes shouted to feel their impact; and the whiteface doesn't pan out stylistically—are we in a circus? watching puppets? is it meant to be mask-like? What that means in the context of the show is never made clear. Also, this translation is strikingly modern, making contemporary references that are more confusing than illuminating.

On the upside, it's intriguing, compelling theatre, bringing to vivid life one of theatre's iconic musicals. Root for knave Mackie, despise the corruption, and enjoy an evening of nicely staged debauchery.

The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht with music by Kurt Weill, based on John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera." presented by San Jose Stage, 490 South First Street, San Jose, through March 30. Tickets $25 - $50, available at 408-283-7142 or at

Photo: Dave Lepori

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Jeanie K. Smith