The Threepenny Opera
From the opening moments, we know that we are in for something different. We hear the familiar strains of the classic 1959 pop song “Mac the Knife,” but in a context estranged from the pop/rock era.
Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s 1928 play with music, Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) was a leap beyond its audience’s experience. Deeply political, yet offering appeal to contemporary audiences, it was characterized as the most lowbrow entertainment for a highbrow audience, or the most highbrow entertainment for a lowbrow audience. Such is its neither fish nor fowl categorization, yet in its time it was the most popular musical production to date in Germany, and it has stood the test of time. As a cultural experience, it is probably more important for its place in history, but it does provide provocative atmospherics and some notable highlights.
In the compact storyline, Polly Peachum has had a whirlwind romance and marries Macheath, a notorious and amoral criminal. Problem is, Polly’s father, the King of the Beggars, objects to their joining. Ultimately, Mr. Peachum maneuvers to have Mackie arrested and condemned to be hanged. Along the way, we learn of some of Mackie’s relevant relationships who may have some say in his destiny. Tiger Brown is the Chief of Police and his old Army buddy, while Jenny Diver is his – still current wife. But the real story is exposing the life and ethos of the criminal underbelly of London. It is interesting to note that this offering, full of vulgarity and unredeemable characters, had its heyday around the same time as the Hays Code, whose puritanical principles proscribed depictions such as these, was instituted in the American film industry.
Brecht had strong theatrical precepts, which are adeptly upheld by Director Elkhanah Pulitzer and her creative staff. Brecht eschewed realistic depiction, arguing that it permits the viewer to become emotionally engaged with the characters and their plights, compromising his desire that the viewer analyze the text within a Marxian construct. Thus, rather than traditional interiors, fanciful plastic curtains and nylon sheeting material dominate Chad Owens’ set. Meanwhile, Christine Crook’s ensemble costumes are comprised of stained, shabby undergarments, and in a nod to the prominence of prostitution in the plot, bright red highlights appear throughout the costumery. Makeup is also unnatural and over the top, often pasty, with lipstick and mascara smears.
West Edge has assembled a well-suited cast, headed by the edgy tenor Derek Chester as Macheath. Perhaps the strongest vocals come from Maya Kherani as Polly, with her warm tone and well-managed vibrato. But the legendary and powerful Catherine Cook as Mrs. Peachum and Sarah Coit as Jenny Diver also deserve particular mention. In keeping with Weill’s orchestration, Conductor David Möschler leads a jazz-like band of seven instrumentalists playing over 20 instruments. The configuration that opened the prelude sounded out of tune but worked better under the cover of singing.
The score is full of memorable and mellifluous music, drawing not from the opera idiom but from jazz and German dance and pop styles. It opens with the best, a female ensemble’s fine rendering of the universally popular “Ballad of Mack the Knife,” about the foul deeds of Macheath. The next most famous and performed aria is “Pirate Jenny,” sung by Kherani. Some confusion is associated with this number as Polly uses it to express her resentment toward her parents, but uses Jenny as the basis of her expression, without knowing that Mackie is also married to Jenny. In addition, Chester and Coit do a fine job in the duet “The Pimp’s Ballad,” about their life together.
What is less satisfying is the lack of organic fit of the narrative passages surrounding the songs. Note that this was not a joint project from the outset. Rather, Brecht, in collaboration with Elisabeth Hauptmann, had fully developed the book into which Weill, as a lesser partner, plopped the music. Adding to the mélange, Brecht inserted lyrics in four songs purloined from François Villon – without acknowledgement.
Productions like this one in the operatic mode face another disadvantage compared to the stage musical format. Because artists lack voice amplification in the opera mode, the spoken portions are virtually yelled in order to carry through the house, creating an unspontaneous and unnatural quality.
Nonetheless, this is an important work in the history of musical theater that offers great entertainment value. West Edge has produced a thoughtful, well crafted, and worthy production.
The Threepenny Opera, composed by Kurt Weill with libretto by Bertolt Brecht and based on John Gay’s novel The Beggar’s Opera, is produced by West Edge Opera and is performed at The Bridge Yard, 210 Burma Road, Oakland, CA through August 15, 2019.