Mack the Knife is back in town.
As you walk through the halls upon entering Signature Theatre, pieces are already in place to set the tone for the reimagined futuristic dystopia that embodies the musical The Threepenny Opera. Video plays mourning the death of the Queen and newspaper articles align the walls touting the soon-to-be coronation of Prince William to the throne.
This isn't the same Threepenny Opera of 1928 fame (book and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht and music by Kurt Weill). In this production, director Matthew Gardiner has made the wise decision to play off a 1994 adaptation from London's Donmar Warehouse with Robert David MacDonald translating the book and Jeremy Sams translating the lyrics.
Gardiner modernizes it even more with the influx of Prince William references, dress right out of the 21st Century, and cell phones playing a crucial role in the story. Some of these modernizations seem oddly out of place as the dialogue and foggy story sometimes feel much more suited for early 20th century and this update lacks some of the grittiness expected.
The story tells the tale of MacHeath, an English murderous scoundrel with a love of money and, even more so, women. Mitchell Jarvis has a great look for the part of the man they refer to as "Mack the Knife," and a Phantom-like voice to match, but his take on the role plays more campy than it should. You never really feel the devilish venom that he is supposed to exude.
Erin Driscoll is pitch perfect as Macheath's young new wife Polly Peachum, showcasing her lovely soprano in both "Pirate Jenny" and "Barbara's Song." In a role that could have seemed overly sympathetic and tired, she manages to bring passion, humor, and moxie.
Rick Hammerly dons drag to play Macheath's pregnant former lover, the sassy Lucy Brown. The result is a hoot. His scenes with Driscoll are full of scathing one-upmanship that seem straight out of an episode of one of the infamous Real Housewives shows, and it provides great comic relief. Hammerly and Driscoll are divine on the "Jealousy Duet" as Macheath's two loves fight with everything they have for their man.
Natascia Diaz gives a strong voice to Jenny, another ex-lover of Macheath, who sings a sultry version of the infamous "Mack the Knife" to start the musical and has a chief role in bringing the villain down.
Also noteworthy are Bobby Smith and Donna Migliaccio as Polly's entrepreneurial parents, Jonathan and Celia Peachum, who make handling beggars seem as normal as running a mom and pop fruit stand. The Peachums would love nothing more than to see Macheath pay for his crimes but their characters seem to get forgotten about for too long in Act II.
Add in a corrupt police chief (a stoic John Leslie Wolfe), a gaggle of prostitutes, and a band of Mack's criminal gang (a disarming Sean Fri among them) and the story meanders back and forth between comedy and drama, though never quite finding the right mix.
Scenic designer Misha Kachman does his part to add to the 21st century feel. A stock ticker runs alongside the top of the stage, graffiti covers the walls, and giant blocks spelling out "Life" are placed to grab one's attention. It does a fine job of portraying the seamy underworld of hoodlums, beggars, and prostitutes that run about in Jolly Ole' England.
Aside from the aforementioned "Mack the Knife," Threepenny Opera doesn't have any tunes that stick with you; most are forgotten before the next song even begins. Gardiner does his best with making the musical relevant for today's audience, but it just doesn't stand the test of time.