The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, in a new translation by Wallace Shawn, based on Elisabeth Hauptman's German translation of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. Directed by Scott Elliott. Music Director Kevin Stites. Choreographed by Aszure Barton. Set design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Isaac Mizrahi. Lighting design by Jason Lyons. Sound design by Ken Travis. Hair & wig design by Paul Huntley. Original orchestrations by Kurt Weill. Music Coordinator John Miller. Cast: Alan Cumming, Jim Dale, Ana Gasteyer, Cyndi Lauper, Nellie McKay, with Christopher Innvar, Carlos Leon, Brian Charles Rooney, Adam Alexi-Malle, Terry Burrell, Brian Butterick, David Cale, Romain Frugé, John Herrera, Nehal Joshi, Christopher Kenney, Deborah Lew, Valisia Lekae Little, Maureen Moore, Brooke Sunny Moriber, Kevin Rennard, Lucas Steele.
Alienation? What alienation?
Okay, there's the voice over the P.A. system calling the actors to their places. And the actors marching up the aisles to the stage to get there. And one performer informing the audience about the impending intermission. And, yes, there's no curtain call. And... well, the examples do go on. But isn't it amazing how these things, in the proper context, can invigorate rather than distance?
The Bertolt Brecht purists probably just fainted. "The very idea," you can hear the weakened stragglers whispering with their little remaining breath, "of director Scott Elliott, in the Roundabout's new revival of The Threepenny Opera at Studio 54, exploiting and exploding Brecht's theatrical tenets in this way. How dare he! Doesn't he know Brecht is sacred?"
Of course he does. He also knows that Brecht is dead.
And both factors, it turns out, are equally important in Elliott's supremely stylish Threepenny resuscitation. So if you're going to take umbrage to any new calculation, or (worse yet!) a new translation (by actor-playwright Wallace Shawn), of Brecht's original German play, you might as well stay home. This Threepenny is not for you. It is, however, for everyone else.
Lest there be any doubt, just look at the principal casting, which spans more musical and theatrical genres than the Performing Arts shelves at Barnes & Noble. Tony winner Alan Cumming: conceptual, ultra-mod revival reveler. Cyndi Lauper: 1980s American pop priestess. Nellie McKay: 2000s American-English pop priestess. Jim Dale: English music hall evoker and musical comedy star. Ana Gasteyer: TV sketch comedy queen with a piercing belt voice.
That Elliott could assemble such disparate performers and integrate them into his Threepenny with no hint of incongruity (fine, except their accents) ought to qualify him as the Broadway season's preeminent miracle worker. (Had he also required them to all play their own instruments, he'd likely be on the fast track to sainthood.) But he also elicits from his troupe impressive performances that work both on their own terms and as part of a raucous, ragtag ensemble. All while respecting and - dare I say it? - doing justice to the material.
That, too, is a major achievement, as the musical, which Brecht wrote and which Kurt Weill composed, is a notoriously tricky sell today. The last Broadway revival, headed by rock star Sting, was a fast failure in 1989. And the ubiquity of the story and score (particularly that dirty ditty about "Mack the Knife"), due partially to the starry 1954 Marc Blitzstein-translated revival still spoken of in reverent tones, sabotages most efforts to reclaim Brecht's original intention for the show as a call to arms for the poor (in his case, of Germany's corrupt Weimar Republic).
You can guess where this is going, and that's exactly where Elliott and Shawn take it, after a fashion. They get in a few (specific) digs at American corporatism; they get in a few (less specific) digs at the Bush administration and associated cash-hungry conservatives. But they never operate outside the text, never force their ideas into a structure not designed to support them. Shawn's new translation might be especially brisk and more than a little coarse, but it's always Threepenny, simply one reconsidered for today.
So it's unsurprising that the story of independent-businessman thief Macheath (Cumming) doing battle with corporatizer Jonathan Peachum (Dale) and his wife (Gasteyer), the head of a coalition of the city's beggars, is communicated so clearly and cleanly. The marriage of Macheath to Peachum's daughter, Polly (McKay), appropriately rocks the Peachum power structure. Polly's battle for Macheath's affections with his other squeeze, Lucy Brown (played, brilliantly, by male actor Brian Charles Rooney), the daughter of a corrupt policeman, is comically vicious. Even Macheath's ultimate fate, spurned by conscience-driven liberalism riding in on a traditional deus ex machina, is startlingly well integrated.
However, it must be stated - and some might consider this a flaw - that the production packs all the emotional punch of doing laundry. The plight of the poor registers intellectually (which Brecht might appreciate), but the ghoulish, leather-clad ensemble of the damned - costumed by, of all people, Isaac Mizrahi - don't look like they're suffering much (at which Brecht might frown). And while some cast members, particularly Lauper and McKay, cut arresting forms onstage and knock out the songs like natural-born interpreters (at times, McKay sounds and acts like Judy Garland at her most vulnerably pouty), their characterizations are otherwise most charitably described as approximate.
Such concerns aren't an issue with the rest of the company. Cumming, if not exactly Brecht's emotional power broker, provides a juicily daring and emotionally affecting Macheath. Dale's smarmy ease and rubbery body, especially perfect fits for Aszure Barton's satirically mechanical choreography in his second-act showstopper "The Song of Inadequacy of Human Striving," make him the definitive 2006 Peachum. If Gasteyer sometimes pushes too hard for sophisticated line readings, she displays an incredible intensity in speech and song. And Rooney is incapacitatingly riotous in "Lucy's Aria," which blends the best (worst?) of German opera, American musicals, alcohol-addled weirdness, and playful supertitle insanity.
Those supertitles, by the way, and the giant neon location names that almost entirely constitute Derek McLane's set, are crucial to Elliott's invocation of Brecht. Perhaps they, like Jason Lyons's lighting plot, are too colorful to be uninvolving, and perhaps the moving platforms used to get some actors and set pieces in place is overly slick overkill.
But what really matters is how much of Brecht truly emerges from this
production. Elliott and his company have grippingly postulated what Brecht
himself might have created were he still alive and revisiting his own work:
They've made alterations of material and tone that nonetheless leave the
spirit of the original firmly intact. That alone makes this Threepenny
Opera far and away the least alienating, and most successful, musical
revival of the season.