Pay up: Gina Razon, Travis Risner and Katherine Yeager in The Threepenny Opera.
Pay up: Gina Razon, Travis Risner and Katherine Yeager in The Threepenny Opera.

The Threepenny Opera

I suppose that a work as brilliant as Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera is bound to be interpreted and reinterpreted on the stage, each version as much a mirror of its time and place as of the creators' intentions. Intended as a satire that inverted social values and suggested that the predatory world of thieves, murderers and prostitutes was in fact a distorted mirror of bourgeois Germany society, Threepenny is likely to be seen by contemporary audiences as pure entertainment — albeit titillating, savage and sexy entertainment - or at most a snapshot of life in a seething underclass corrupted by poverty.

The piece is set in 1838 London, just before the coronation of Queen Victoria, and the central figure is Macheath, who runs an underworld empire as violent and ruthless as any Tony Soprano ever dreamed of. Macheath marries Polly Peachum, whose parents control the city's beggars the way pimps control whores, providing them with rags and begging signs, telling them where they'll be allowed to set up shop and demanding a cut of any money they collect. Sleazy as they are, the Peachums regard themselves as regular businesspeople and are horrified by Polly's marriage and determined to have Macheath arrested and hanged. This is hard, because Macheath's closest friend and ally, a onetime fellow fighter in the colonial wars, is the chief of police, Tiger Brown. Mr. Peachum threatens that he'll disrupt the coronation by flooding the streets with beggars if Brown doesn't do his duty; Mrs. Peachum bribes whore Jenny Diver to turn in Macheath. It looks as if Macheath is done for.

When I was very young, I actually saw the first New York production of Threepenny, featuring Lotte Lenya; I retain a memory of hoarse, desperate singing and a lot of rag-clad writhing figures. I also had the good fortune to watch Richard Foreman's seminal revival many years later. It was brutal and elegant, and starred an unforgettable Raul Julia. Both of these shows were animated by a clear directorial vision. To some extent, OpenStage director Denise Burson Freestone has one, too: She is re-creating the Berlin cabaret where Threepenny was introduced to the world in 1928. The stage at the Lincoln Center crawls with angry whores; a ballad singer gazes at us balefully while providing explanations of time and place; a threatening Tiger Brown seems to jot down notes about individual audience members in a book; Jenny Diver spits defiance in "Solomon's Song."

There's a lot of energy on stage, and sometimes a lot of power, particularly when the whole ensemble sings together. Some of the songs are disappointing — even such iconic numbers as "How Do All Humans Live?" and "Ballad of Mack the Knife" — but others remain impressive: Travis Risner delivering Macheath's song at the foot of the gallows; the "Jealousy Duet" between Nikki Gibbs as Lucy and Katherine Yeager as Polly; Jenny and Macheath's "Pimp's Ballad." (Gina Razon plays Jenny, deploying a voice that's almost too rich and lovely in the role that made the husky-voiced Lenya famous.)

With its live orchestra and large cast, this is an ambitious project, but it doesn't entirely succeed. A major problem is the thick Cockney accent the cast adopts; not only is it inaccurate, but it makes a good bit of the dialogue completely incomprehensible. Risner does well as Macheath, but most of the rest of the cast doesn't have the skill to bring out the complexity and sadness beneath the script's loud, angry words.


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