Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The Threepenny Opera
New Line Theatre's production of Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill's bitter, dark opera isn't very bitter or dark at all.
But it is surprisingly successful as a sort of follow-up to the recent Jerry Springer: The Opera by the same company. Here the opening number, "Mack The Knife," is wonderfully sinister. But by the end of the show, people are making "talk to the hand" flourishes, just like in the Springer show, and very funny cat fights seem to overwhelm the usual Brechtian themes of economic justice and ironic self-loathing. The comical update is doubly surprisingly, coming under the direction of well-known originalist (and company founder) Scott Miller.
It's hard to dismiss the final product, though. The music by Weill easily supports the lighter interpretation, though it starts out with an opening tune that's exactly what you'd expect: a sort of drunken spider's web of furtive melodies. Soon, though, the music turns stunning and even bubbly after that. And great voices, including the shimmering Sarah Porter's, give a soaring, unbowed defiance (and even nobility) to the whole thing, far removed from Lotte Lenya's famous growl as the original Mrs. Peachum.
With all the changes in style, though, we do eventually run into some trouble in support of the narrativeas the very modern, comedic tone finally undermines the storyline. For example, the comical spats between Mrs. Peachum's daughter Polly (the excellent Cherlynn Alvarez) and the saucy Lucy Brown (Christina Rios) become the dominant struggle in the end. Their comical American ghetto (or white trash) mannerisms finally push the story off the tracks, leaving Macheath (Todd Schaefer) stuck in a hangman's noose, from both a literal and a dramatic standpoint.
I applaud director Miller for breaking free with his own fresh take on the material (something he has been loathe to do in the past); but at the same time, the last ten minutes languish, as Brecht's original drama drops through a gallows trapdoor.
Mr. Schaefer and Christopher "Zany" Clark as the police commissioner seem like a lovely couple on stage, so it's hard to imagine this Macheath as a serial killer of unsuspecting womenor to conceive of the viciousness that Commissioner Brown inspires in his own policemen (though the men's chorus is bristling with talent).
So it will probably amount to a different kind of the Theater of Alienation for actual Brechtians, as this show only winkingly breaks the fourth wall, and its performers all maintain vibrant inner lives throughout. In fact, the youngest people in the audience (perhaps the least familiar with Brecht) seemed to enjoy it the most on opening nightas if the whole thing were meant to be a bitchy commentary on disenfranchisement, with a hilariously up-to-date sensibility ... rather than a dark tour of the endless struggle for subsistence and self-respect on the bottom rung of the society.
But it still works, if you don't mind that guy at the very end, standing around on a scaffold with a noose for seemingly no reason, like some other random guy condemned by a vicious law enforcement system, while two hilarious girls below threaten to snatch each other bald. It very well could be some awful commentary on recent news events that led to riots in St. Louis and New York and Baltimore. But it's also a Threepenny that doesn't seem to give a pfennig or a fig what you think of it. And, you have to admit, that's pretty Brechtian right there.
This latest New Line musical is faithful to the original, in that it's very much a haughty celebration of the lowly, who've been failed by life again and again. Then, by adding a snarky, playful vision, the production becomes more like a gleeful victory lap for cause of social liberalisma modern American show in venerable trappings, that shouts, "I told you so" to all those who refuse to acknowledge the shoddiness of 150 years of do-it-yourself Reconstruction in the U.S.
It's not a hopeless modern black America, of coursebut the stage is populated by the utterly bereft (the denizens of London dockyards) who live by their own rules, and avoid the law at all costs. From a director who usually looks backward in time for context, and also revels in the shocking, we now get the biggest shock of all: that this 1928 show, one of the highlights of the German Weimar period, seems to have snapped out of hopelessness and morphed into the first rebellious musical of the "post-Ferguson" era.
Through June 20, 2015, at the South Campus of Washington University, 6501 Clayton Rd., just east of Big Bend Blvd. The English version is translated by Marc Blitzstein. For more information visit www.newlinetheatre.com.
The New Line Band
The Artistic Staff