Mack the Soupspoon (… couldn’t resist …)
From the first moments of the overture, discordant and musical, played by superb musicians from the back of the stage, you know you’re experiencing something great. The Threepenny Opera is one of the greatest pieces of musical theatre of the 20th Century — it’s up there with Porgy and Bess — and happily this production fulfills it.
Based on John Gay’s 18th-century The Beggar’s Opera, The Threepenny Opera was first produced in Berlin in 1928. It’s an outstanding and unusual example of a political point of view, here Brecht’s socialist critique of capitalist society, transformed into art that’s not preachy: skip the preaching, as Jenny reminds us in her “Solomon Song.” Yet the message, “First feed the face, and then talk right and wrong,” comes across loud and clear — and joyously.
Set in 19th century London and populated by low-life characters, including prostitutes, beggars and thieves, the show centers on a lean, mean crook Macheath, known as Mack the Knife. Irresistible to women, he turns the head of Polly, the protected daughter of the wise-to-the world Mr. Peachum, “King of the Beggars”, and Mrs. Peachum. When Macheath marries Polly (sort of), a furious Mr. Peachum determines to have him hanged; there are crimes aplenty to accuse him of but the Chief of Police is — guess what — corrupt. Still, caught in the snare of his “old dependency — women”, as Mrs. Peachum sings it, he comes near to death, only to … see the show! It’s such a great ending. Yes, more joyous irony.
What a marvelous wealth of songs! The singers are all good but some capture the grating quality of the style of Weimar Berlin with which Martha Clarke imbues the show. John Kelly as the Street Singer delivers a wonderfully subversive introductory “Ballad of Mack the Knife” and is charismatically sleazy throughout in the role of Fitch. Mary Beth Peil is tough and terrific as Mrs. Peachum. These two most fully capture the character of the music and the essence of The Threepenny Opera.
As Macheath, Michael Park understands the meanings of his all-out songs and gets them across with rich vigor, but his persona, and gorgeously tailored suit, are too comfortable looking — too capitalist — for Mack the Knife. Not knife-like, he’s more a Mack the Soup Spoon. F. Murray Abraham is gruff and tender as Mr. Peachum, though he’s not a great singer. Laura Osnes sings Polly’s songs with a beautiful, strong voice, though she seems too worldly-wise in advance, rather than learning a thing or three from Macheath.
Now what about Jenny? A big question for this show. Jenny, a prostitute and maid in the brothel, and Macheath’s sometime lover, is the pivotal role Lotte Lenya sang in the original Berlin production in Berlin in 1928 and again in the 1956 production at the Theater de Lys in New York City, and often heard recorded since. In this production Jenny is misconceived: turning her back of the strident, no-holds-barred Jenny that Miss Lenya gave and that’s scripted, Miss Clarke gives us a depressed, near-ingenue Jenny, played by Sally Murphy, even to the point of changing the words to suit this passive characterization. Ending her famous revenge fantasy song, “Pirate Jenny,” by imagining all “the bodies piled up” in front of her, Miss Murphy sings with a shrug: “So what?” A far cry from Lotte Lenya’s vengeful words: “That’ll learn ya.”
Maybe Miss Clarke thought Lotte Lenya’s tough Jenny was too iconic, so went the other way. At any rate, this passive characterization lets us down also in “Solomon Song” where, abandoning irony for woebegone, Miss Murphy sings, face turned away, brushing across the far walls of the set like a teen-ager without a prom date. The role is salvaged only by the fact that it’s a stupendous song, and Sally Murphy is a poignant, fine performer so that wistful, though off-key, didn’t interrupt the impact of this wonderful show.
The production’s overall concept, set, lighting and costumes are glorious. The spirit of caricature, the costumes, and choreography are inspired by images from George Grosz’s gutsy and unblinking illustrations of Berlin low-life of the period, as Robert Ruben, who saw the show with me commented, a bringing together of art and theater that recalls Miss Clarke’s Garden of Earthly Delights inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting, reviewed here in 2008. For instance, the sofa in the brothel and the choreographed arrangement of girls on and around it appear to be drawn directly from an illustration by Grosz, a sort of tableaux vivant. All is over-washed with Martha Clarke’s luscious glow and sense of luxury. George Grosz deserves mention in the show’s program.
Joyous irony: the show’s grim, underdog message — useless, it’s useless, even when you’re playing rough, useless, it’s useless, you’re never rough enough — is transformed through transcendent art: you walk out of the theater elated.
The Threepenny Opera plays at the Atlantic Theater in Manhattan’s Chelsea district through
May 4th, 2014 — extended through May 11th.