Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Theater Review: The Threepenny Opera a delicious treat

By Phil Doyle

Bertolt Brecht's ground breaking influence is often *gasp* forgotten by modern day lovers of traditional musical theatre.  The Threepenny Opera exists in a desperate, eat or be eaten, exploit or be exploited, corrupt world. This is a show that stands in sharp contrast to the glossy notion of what the musical became. Before Roger's and Hammerstein wrote songs about surrey's with fringes on top.  The Threepenny Opera is a brisk dip in ice water, after wallowing in a hot tub for too long.  

The Threepenny Opera (1927) by Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill, is based on John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. The title indicated the ticket price, and was originally meant to appeal to lower class theatregoers, leveling out the disparity of the theatre patron.

Brechtian theatre provides a didactic approach that often demonstrates hypocritical and polarizing themes of society. For example, the dichotomy of the rich and destitute is presented in such a way that may shock and alienate the observer, and then provokes reaction. 

YIKES!  Listen to me!  Are you still with me?  If you are, I bid you congratulation. You have passed my test.  Allow me to brush off all of this historical theatre gobbledygook … 

So, to sum things up in a metaphorical nutshell:  The works of Bertolt Brecht gleefully wallow into hardcore filth and debauchery that makes the Tournament of Roses Parade look like the Folsom Street Fair.

The Threepenny Opera is a love story set amongst beggars and prostitutes.  Macheath, aka Mack the Knife, is a successful criminal who captures the love of Polly Peachum, and they quickly decide to marry.  Polly's father, Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, doesn't take kindly to the engagement and sets a plan in motion to have Macheath arrested and hanged.

We quickly discover that all of the characters are corrupt and desperate opportunists.  From the chief of police, to the women who Macheath has manipulated to meet his own needs.

The action comes to a head with the hangman’s noose around Macheath’s neck.  At that vital moment, TA-DA! A miracle.  The execution is called off, and Macheath is awarded a lifetime of wealth (and thus power).  Perhaps this epic moment of financial salvation was originally made to appeal to the poor patrons in the audience.  It is an act of a deus ex machina that would make Euripides proud.

Director El Armstrong brings to the stage a production of The Threepenny Opera that is utterly approachable.  Armstrong proves to be a very good storyteller, and skilled at providing this cleverly staged production. 

This version tends to lean on the safe side.  Sure it tosses out the occasional four-letter word, and social taboos are addressed, but it feels like it has been watered down.  Which brings me to an interesting point.  This production still works, especially for Brecht newbies, or the more traditional theatre attendee.  

Though not as stark and shocking as many fans of Brecht would expect, this production is driven by the talents of gifted actors. 

The first reason to go see this show:  Richard Cowden as Macheath (Mackie the Knife).  Cowden gives a powerful performance that embodies the imposing presence of Macheath.  He has a commanding vocal range, and an exquisite ability to communicate his character’s intent.

The second reason to see this show:  Mel Horton as Mrs. Peachum.  Her skilled vocal talent raises the bar of this production.  Horton performance is a delight to behold.

My third reason to see this show:  Megan Van De Hey as Jenny.  A stunning performance, and a voice that gives The Threepenny Opera its momentum.  For me, this show really began once Van De Hey hit the stage.  Have I mentioned stunning?  Oh yeah, I did … and the third time is a charm. Stunning.

There are other reasons to see this show.  There are other standouts.  Personally, Cowden, Horton, and Van De Hey are gems.  The rest of the talented cast sometimes fluctuate in ability and performance.

I applaud and give mad props to any theatre company delivering Brecht.  I am a proud theatre geek, and loved some stand out performances in this incarnation of The Threepenny Opera.  The rest of the show felt kind of safe.  Brecht served a la mode, (albeit with vanilla ice cream), is still a delicious treat.

Miners Alley Playhouse presents "The Three Penny Opera" through October 21. For more information visit www.MinersAlley.com or call 303-935-3044.