Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Threepenny Opera and Song at Twilight

Also see Richard's recent reviews of Steel Kiss and On a Clear Day

ACT has done a smashing production of Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera . This show has always been one of my favorite musicals. I saw the 1954 production that was adapted by Marc Blitzestein at the Theatre De Lys in New York with a wonderful cast including Lotte Lenya as Jenny, Scott Merrill as Mack the Knife. Also in the cast were Jo Sullivan, Charlotte Rae and Beatrice Arthur. I thought no one could do Jenny like Lotte Lenya. This production ran 95 performances. They had to vacate the theatre because of a prior booking. However it returned in 1955 and ran 2,611 performances.

I also saw the Joseph Papp production in 1976 with Raul Julia as Mack. In that cast was C.K. Alexander, Elizabeth Wilson, Blair Brown and Caroline Kava. This ran 307 performances. I have also seen the old German film version of the "opera".

Now I was prepared to see what ACT would do with the musical. I was not disappointed. From the moment Bebe Neuwirth, as Jenny, stands alone in front of the red curtain and sings "Mack the Knife" I was hooked. Then the curtain raises to reveal the flashing neon and sparkling electric sings that is the underbelly of a portside city. I was completely enchanted. This production will be discussed for many years to come. This electrifying production with a luminous cast will be legendary.

What a coup for ACT to sign Bebe Neuwirth as Jenny. She is superb. Ms Neuwirth is flat out astounding in both singing and dancing. There is nothing that this woman can't do. She grabs the spotlight at the beginning of the production singing "Mack the Knife" and she does not let go. Ms. Perloff, the director, was wise in giving this number to Bebe. She has a quaver in her voice to strike a deeply unsettling tone. She had lank black hair, a ghostly white face, painted red lips and a scarlet teddy worn high on her leggy frame. She was a sex icon and she soared into the song "Pimp's Ballad" with Macheath, a siren wailing out to the audience.

Lisa Vroman, who was Christine in Phantom for five years, shows up in the second act as Lucy Brown. This is one of those small parts that people will remember for years. She uses her soprano to its max, and what a voice! It is a shame she had only two songs but she was dazzling in these songs.

As they say, a star was born in this production. Anika Noni Rose as Polly, a young ACT trained actress/singer, breaks though triumphantly on her sensual "Barbara Song". What a promising new young actress.

Another stand out is Nancy Dussault as Mrs. Peachum, She steals some thunder from the higher profile players with her portrayal of a blustery woman who forgets she's no longer 21. Her "Ballad of the Prisoner of Sex" is a saucy, funny lesson about men. It is one of the highlights of the show.

As for the males in this production, Phillip Casnoff plays Macheath. He looks about as far from evil as a choirboy but a he creates a convincing Macheath. He is as charming as he is malevolent. Mr. Casnoff sings beautifully and his tango with Bebe is stunning in its erotic electricity and vicious execution. Steven Anthony Jones as Mr. Peachum is an ACT veteran. He has a powerful voice and he is excellent in Scene 1, Act 1 when he sings with Ms. Dussault "Peachum's Morning Hymn" and "Why Can't They Song". Tiger Brown is played by ACT veteran Charles Lanyer and he is particularly good in "Soldiers' Song." The chorus of over 30 persons is marvelous as backup for the leads.

The orchestra on the upper part of the stage sounds like a Berlin Jazz Orchestra of the early 30s and they are amazing. The set and design is great and the direction by Ms. Perloff is electrifying. The musical has been extended to October 10.

Song at Twilight

A young American Citizen Theatre group opened their season with a tribute to the Centennial of Noel Coward's birth. They presented one of the master's later plays. Originally it was a one act play and then extended to two acts. In 1974, the one act play was presented with Coward's Come Into the Garden, Maude, also a one act play, at the Barrymore in New York. The play was called Two Keys and it starred Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy and Anne Baxter. After a successful run in New York, it toured and it played here in San Francisco at the Curran Theatre for a four week run. Mr. Cronyn and Ms. Tandy were marvelous in the roles.

I give this new Regional Group great credit for presenting this new version of Coward's play in two acts. The play is part autobiographical confession of the author's homosexuality and part defense of remaining in the closet. It was written when homosexuality was still illegal in England. Hence the fact that lead character Sir Hugo Latymer, a well known author and playwright, wanted to keep his private life in the closet.

Latymer is living out the latter part of his life in the 60s with his wife of 20 years, Hilde, when an ex-wife, Carlotta Grey, returns to exorcise some ghosts, secrets and other things the author has been hiding in his past. She wants to publish the letters that Latymer wrote her while they were married in exchange for letters she has of his letters to his male lover, now deceased.

Latymer does not want the letters to his ex-wife published and seems to have control of the situation until these damaging love letters to his lover appears. However, the new and loyal wife Hilde saves the day by claiming her affection and respect for him even though she has silently known all the hidden details of her husband's life for years.

Song is a wonderfully written show that might not display Coward at his full power, but the dialogue does pack a wallop by leaving a wide garden of meaning at either side of the words that are spoken.

The production itself is very strange. There are just four characters. The actors wear blatant stripes of face makeup that suggest commedia clowns in modern dress. Hugh's necktie is a frozen triangle, a twisted heart worn on his chest instead of his sleeve. The hotel waiter Felix is a huffy cartoon that could be the MC in "Cabaret" He is bare chested under his formal white jacket and he has heavy lines on the face that suggest Alan Cumming in the musical. Carlotta wears a gaudy mod outfit while Hilda, a German, looks like a butch lesbian.

The acting is very interesting. Carlotta played by Gretchen Grant maintains a fair measure of nasty effervescence in both acts. Sandy Hillard as Hilda is particularly good toward the end of the play when she has her big scene.

Latymer is played by Rich Aiello. He seems to be trying to find his character and he is a bit stiff in the first act. However he becomes stronger in the second act. The only person who is actually playing "Cowardesque" is Dominich Marrone, as Felix the waiter. He makes Felix a sort of bizarre boy-toy and it is over the top acting. However, I liked him.

The play closed on Sunday after a 6 week run.

- Richard Connema

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