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The Threepenny Opera

Jesse L. Martin as Macheath
in The Threepenny Opera
(Photo © Richard Feldman)
How do you revive a show by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill in the wake of Urinetown? Very carefully! Given that Urinetown is a hilarious parody of this seminal style of musical theater (among other styles), there is the danger that contemporary productions of actual Brecht-Weill works might induce unwanted giggles from those who have been regaled by the antics of Officer Lockstock, Little Sally, and cohorts. But that danger is skillfully avoided in the Williamstown Theatre Festival's current production of The Threepenny Opera.

Upon entering the mainstage theater at Williams College in western Massachusetts, we see a large set piece (designed by John Conklin) on which is painted a fragmented image of Queen Victoria with swastikas for earrings. Immediately before the show begins, we hear the usual voiceover speech about recording devices and cell phones -- but, in this case, it sounds more forbidding than ever because it's in German. Following the brief, striking overture, actor Laurent Giroux as the Street Singer -- costumed (by Laurie Churba), lit (by Rui Rita) and made up in such a manner as to scare the pants off anyone -- gives a surpassingly sinister performance of the "Ballad of Mack the Knife." As Giroux sings, the stage is filled with a crowd that includes "policemen" garbed as Nazi storm troopers and prostitutes who look like they've stepped right out of a George Grosz painting. From the get-go, the message is clear: Although there'll be plenty of laughs to be had during this performance, none of them will be unintentional, and the essentially dark, biting nature of the show will not be soft-pedaled.

For all of this, high praise goes to director Peter Hunt, who evinces a firm grasp of the verfremdungseffekt concept that is basic to Brecht's work. (Explanation: "To discourage the audience from identifying with a character and losing detachment, the action must continually be made strange, alien, remote, separate. To do this, the director must use any devices that preserve or establish this distancing.") Of course, such "strange making" techniques -- direct confrontation of the audience, songs that end with shocking abruptness, and so on -- have been used so often by now that, in the wrong hands, they can seem boring and/or laughably pretentious. (This is the basis of much of Urinetown's humor.) Yet when employed correctly, as verfremdungseffekt is here by Hunt and his colleagues, it serves well its purpose of making the audience look at Macheath, Polly Peachum, Jenny Diver, Lucy Brown, et al. objectively rather than getting caught up with them emotionally.

Betty Buckley as Jenny Diver
(Photo: © Richard Feldman)
Threepenny makes for a long evening; this one runs over three hours, including two 15-minute intermissions between the three acts. After that first, arresting statement of the "Ballad of Mack the Knife," the narrative drags a bit during the expository scenes. In fact, the show is full of potential pitfalls, few of which were avoided by those who put together the disastrous 1989 Broadway production that starred Sting. But when done correctly, as it is at Williamstown, Threepenny is still one hell of a ride.

The WTF has a long, honorable tradition of peppering its productions with major stars and, happily, of matching them well with their roles. That tradition continues here: With one notable exception, The Threepenny Opera is impeccably cast. For example, even those who are not huge fans of Betty Buckley may well agree that her intense, exciting, sometimes steely voice is well suited to such Brecht-Weill numbers as "Pirate Jenny" and "Solomon Song." Buckley is rather old for Jenny Diver, but her dramatic and musical authority in the role is a great asset to the production.

Melissa Errico is as lovely a Polly Peachum as one might expect. In addition to Polly's usual songs, she has been handed the interpolated "Surabaya Johnny" (from Happy End); this serves the double purpose of giving the bewitching, silver-voiced Errico another number and indicating that her character, a sort of neo-ingénue, is even less innocent than her parents might pretend. As Lucy Brown, the third of the bandit Macheath's women, Karen Ziemba is a pistol: her comedic skills are fully displayed, and her vocal harmonies with Errico in the "Jealousy Duet" are especially beguiling in that Threepenny's duets, trios, quartets, and ensemble numbers are sung almost entirely in unison.

David Schramm is wonderfully self-satisfied as the corrupt, venal merchant J.J. Peachum, and the always-terrific Randy Graff is a major presence as his wife; Graff's rendition of the "Ballad of Dependency" with the original, unbowdlerized, sexually explicit English lyrics of the brilliant Marc Blitzstein is something to hear. (A woman in the audience hustled her young daughter out of the theater during this number. Coincidence? I think not!) Jack Willis as Tiger Brown and William Duell in the dual roles of Filch and the Queen's Messenger -- the same parts Duell played in the epoch-making 1954 Off-Broadway production of Threepenny -- offer vivid character sketches.

Melissa Errico as Polly Peachum
(Photo: © Richard Feldman)
In the face of so much excellence, I'm sorry to report that Jesse L. Martin is quite seriously miscast as the play's central figure, Macheath. Martin has the sex appeal but not the danger necessary for the role, and his performance is further hampered by mushy diction in both his dialogue and songs. Happily, he does pull himself together for the final scene, offering impassioned renditions of Macheath's two "Calls from the Grave." Jim Stanek, Jack Noseworthy, Julio Monge, and John Ellison Conlee each retain the spark of individuality while functioning as the well-oiled unit that is Macheath's gang.

The musical values of the show are exemplary, with musical director/conductor James Sampliner leading a crack, seven-person, on-stage band through Weill's original orchestrations. (Irony of ironies: Though the instrumentation of Threepenny was intended to produce a lean and mean sound as befits the subject matter and style of the show, the strains of this combo seem almost lush when compared to those that issue from the stripped-down pit bands that one tends to find both on and Off-Broadway these days.)

By any measure, The Threepenny Opera is a landmark work. Had it never been written, such later musical theater masterpieces as Cabaret, Sweeney Todd, and Chicago would be almost inconceivable. Many thanks to the Williamstown Theatre Festival for doing so very well by the prototype.