The Threepenny Opera
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 25, 2006
Every production of The Threepenny Opera that I've ever seen before this one has been divided into three acts; the first two acts conclude with rousing "Threepenny Finales" whose themes, respectively, are "The World is Mean" and "How to Survive" (I'm using Marc Blitzstein's translation here; Ralph Manheim & John Willett put the same ideas as "The World is Poor" and "What Keeps Mankind Alive?"). These overtly political commentaries were meant very purposefully by Bertolt Brecht, I believe, to gnaw at the audience as they went off to drink or smoke during the intermissions.
In the present version, stiffly and poorly translated by Wallace Shawn and disastrously staged by Scott Elliott for Roundabout Theatre Company, there are just two acts, and the first one ends with a plaintive ballad about lost love. And that, friends, is pretty much all you need to know about this Threepenny Opera. It's been completely stripped of its social relevance; that sound you hear is Brecht turning over in his grave (and probably Kurt Weill, too; his landmark score has been disrespected pretty rampantly here as well).
The story of Threepenny Opera, taken from John Gay's Beggar's Opera, is about a viscious gangster named Macheath (nicknamed Mack the Knife) who weds Polly Peachum, daughter of London's "king of the beggars," Jonathan Peachum. When Peachum takes issue with his daughter's choice of a husband, he contrives to have Macheath captured (his wife convinces a prostitute named Jenny to betray Mack) and arrested by the police. Of course, the chief of police is the corrupt Tiger Brown, an old friend of Macheath's who is on the take, so Peachum's initial plan is foiled. However, Peachum threatens to sabotage Queen Victoria's coronation by having his beggars fill the streets of London unless Brown does his duty and sees Macheath hanged. In the final caustic minutes of the play, a royal messenger arrives with the news that Macheath has been reprieved by the Queen and raised to a peerage.
The meaning of all this is extremely clear, I think: Threepenny Opera is about how the rich and powerful repress and exploit everyone else, and how that circumstance turns men into selfish savages struggling to survive. Brecht fills his text with diatribes and with ironical satire—there's the ending, of course, but there's also, more fundamentally, the notion that the master criminal Macheath and the beggar king Peachum are both inveterate (and enormously successful) capitalists, stepping all over their underlings with the unconcerned panache of any Gilded Age magnate (of this or any other Gilded Age).
This would seem to be, then, an extremely propitious moment for Threepenny to mount its assault on an audience. But, alas, the opportunity is entirely squandered by a creative team that seems unsure of what the nature of that assault should be. So all that we have here is a long and ultimately very boring stream of coarseness hurled at us: songs that have the ability to move us emotionally and intellectually are corrupted by performances that are loud but un-thought-out; scenes that should anger or jolt fail to do anything except—and this only rarely—bemuse.
I'll give you a few examples to explain what I mean. Let's look at "Pirate Jenny," one of the signature songs of the show, a ballad about a barmaid so exhausted by the indignities and humiliations of her so-called station that she longs only for bitter revenge and escape. Nellie McKay shrieks and shouts the song's final verses in the wild cries of a dying animal, which not only fails to serve Weill's remarkable music but also subverts the intention of the song. Similarly, Mrs. Peachum's knowing solo about sex, in which she muses that Macheath is so arrogant that even when he's about to be arrested he will still stop for a quickie at the neighborhood brothel, is here transformed into a vulgar prank: Shawn replaces Brecht's philosophy with a series of dirty rhymes (featuring words like "vagina," "dicks," and another too ugly for me to repeat here or anywhere).
Meanwhile, Macheath's soliloquy "The Ballad of the Happy Life" (Blitzstein called it the "Easy" Life) is embellished, if that's the term, with a chorus line incongruously dressed in T-shirts bearing the logos of large corporations such as Target and Coca-Cola. It means nothing, but presumably lets the creators feel they've accomplished something Brechtian.
Derek McLane's set is a gawdy impression of Weimar decadence that would have been suitable for the Roundabout's recent revival of Cabaret but makes little sense in a play ostensibly about Victorian England; ditto Isaac Mizrahi's costumes, which do nothing but call attention to themselves and range from a tight and too-short mini-skirt for Mrs. Peachum to a Mrs. Haversham-esque wedding dress for Polly to (most appallingly) a pair of glittery-glam skimpy briefs for the royal messenger at the end. Macheath speaks with a Scottish accent and Jenny with a Bronx accent: what period and place are the creators going for, exactly? Lucy, Macheath's other "wife," is portrayed by, and as, a man; and indeed Mack the Knife seems ambisexual in his tastes, while Tiger Brown appears to be in the throes of deep infatuation for his buddy. What do Shawn and Elliott think they're accomplishing with this?
The cast, an eclectic and often famous assemblage, is ill-used. Alan Cumming underwhelms as Macheath, blending into the background the way Julia Roberts does in Three Days of Rain; Macheath needs to be a powerful and charismatic presence and Cumming, who was certainly that as the Emcee in Cabaret, oddly fails us here. Jim Dale, as genial a performer as there is, fights against Peachum's relentless pragmatism every step of the way; in his last solo, he even does a music-hall-style dance turn whose charm is only exceeded by its utter inappropriateness for the character and situation. Ana Gasteyer belts out her songs in much the same fashion as she must have done in the leading role of Wicked (which reminds me: the sound system didn't seem to be working all that well at the performance reviewed). Pop singer Nellie McKay appears to have no clue how to deal with any of the material she's been handed, walking zombie-like through her book scenes and careening around the songs rather desperately. Onetime pop star Cyndi Lauper is perhaps the most catastrophically cast of the production's headliners, barely able to even be heard during her numbers (and I was in the seventh row of the orchestra).
What it amounts to, more than anything else, is a long, painful evening: not even the original orchestrations by Weill, nicely rendered by Kevin Stites and the orchestra, can salvage this misguided, sloppy show. It's proof that even the most blatant and focused of attacks on our social, political, and economic institutions can be defanged if only someone puts their mind to the task. We can only hope that the folks at Roundabout didn't intend to accomplish such a dubious objective as that.