When Bertolt Brecht first staged his scathing The Threepenny Opera in Berlin in 1928, it not only delighted his middle- and upper-class audiences, it made him money for the first time in his theater life. Maybe it was the sheer naughtiness of its womanizing, murderous, thieving antihero, Macheath (aka Mack the Knife), and the vicarious thrill of watching him roam through the debauched underground of Victorian London. Or maybe it was the exuberant novelty of Brecht's in-your-face, anti-illusionary new theater and Kurt Weill's jazzy score. But however the attraction is argued away, the irony still holds, as Central City Opera's exhilarating production attests. Mack is back, and the audience loves him.

But then, Central City's staging of this musical (it is not an opera, though it requires operatic voices) is inventive, the set design simple, graceful and absolutely serviceable, and most of the performers are talented actors as well as singers. It's not exactly hardcore Brecht, either. I've seen a German company perform The Threepenny Opera (at the Chicago International Theatre Festival five years ago), and the show has ice in its veins under certain ideological circumstances. In fact, Brecht wrote it, collaborating with composer Weill, before his communist ideology firmed up.

Still, Threepenny is funny and ferocious. Its indictment of upper-class exploitation of human suffering is intelligent, honest and universal. And Brecht's unsentimental approach to human degradation and misery still skewers the appropriate sociopolitical villains without merely spewing rhetoric. The antihero triumphs in the end, and all those he's done unto never get the chance to do unto him. The lesson is clear: The remorseless Mack is a bourgeois.

As the show opens, the Street Singer (played with sly wit and a full-bodied baritone by Jeffrey Buchman) sings "Mack the Knife," and his song describes the wretched excess of Macheath's cruelty, names some of his victims and sets the cool tone of the whole play. The action takes place at the lowest strata of London society, where beggars, whores and thieves scratch out their livings over each other's corpses. Here the survival of the fittest means survival of the most ruthless.

Mack is "in love" with Polly Peechum, daughter of a notorious entrepreneur who runs a racket off the earnings of beggars. When Mr. Peechum learns of his daughter's marriage to Mack, the old reprobate vows to turn Mack over to the police and collect the reward. Mack has friends in high places--one of the best songs is sung by Mack and the chief of police, who are old army buddies--but eventually Mr. Peechum has him nabbed in a brothel with the help of Mrs. Peechum and Mack's favorite tart, Jenny. Women may be Mack's downfall, but they are also his best comfort and his only salvation. He escapes prison once, promising to marry the jailer's pregnant daughter, Lucy Brown.

Instead of hiding out or running away, Mack returns to his women, and Jenny turns him over once more. This time it looks like Mack will take it in the neck. But at the last minute, the newly crowned Victoria spares his life, raises his status and confers a princely pension on him.

Baritone Erich Parce brings a wry wiliness to the role that perfectly suits the amoral Mack. His rich, lustrous baritone pumps impressive power into the coldhearted rascal, so in the end you hope he'll escape the rope.

Joyce Campana is a terrific actress, a choice mezzo-soprano and a riveting presence on stage. Her sexy, vengeful Jenny is also riddled with sorrow, anger and calculating self-interest. She has perpetual faith that no matter what she gets Mack into, he'll get out again. And Mack deserves everything Jenny dishes out. When she sings "Pirate Jenny," a revenge fantasy about pirates who kill all her exploiters and make her their queen, it chills the spine but paradoxically elicits sympathy for her ghastly life.

Penny Johnson has a very full, rich soprano voice, but she is not the actress Campana is, and Polly comes across as too refined. Baritone Brian Steele is a grim, delightfully nasty Mr. Peechum. Dana Krueger as old Mrs. Peechum has many of the best, funniest lines, and she carries the moral weight of the show with sardonic brilliance.

Brecht wants us to understand that starvation makes morality mute. It's an arguable sentiment, but his own morality seeps through his didacticism. He shows us that however cruel and debased people at the bottom of the economic pool may be, those who have put them there are far worse. Upper-class scalawags cheat, lie, steal and murder--and with enough money, they get away with it. Cream may rise to the top, but scum does, too.


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