The history of New York revivals of the Kurt Weill/Berthold Brecht collaboration, THE THREEPENNY OPERA, has been a checkered one. Two Broadway revivals, one starring Sting and one with Cindy Lauper, were critical and box office failures in great part because Broadway and THREEPENNY OPERA by definition don't mix. As the title suggests, the Brecht/Weill piece is supposed to be cheap looking. Broadway audiences don't pay $150 for a cheap looking show, nor are they eager to see a show that attacks their core values. The work is also a scathing attack on capitalism, pointing out that bank robbers are not as larcenous as bankers. Anything and anyone can be bought in THREEPENNY OPERA. It's appropriate that much of the work takes place in a whorehouse. There was a successful revival in the 1970s at Lincoln Center Theatre. However, the most famous revival was the one that ran for years during the 1950s at the Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel) in Greenwich Village, featuring Weill's widow, Lotte Lenya. That production was one of the key events in the resurgence of Off-Broadway theatre in the 1950s. The Mark Blitzstein translation, used in the current production, was a classic of its kind. The intimate Atlantic Theatre is an appropriate venue for this work, which demands intimacy and simplicity.
THE THREEPENNY OPERA, based on John Gay's 18th century musical, THE BEGGAR'S OPERA, tells the story of a super thief and womanizer (today we'd call him a sex addict), Macheath, who manages to have no police record because the police chief, Tiger Brown, is an old war buddy and current recipient of a share of Macheath's proceeds. Though he has a girlfriend in every brothel in London, Macheath has married Polly Peachum, the daughter of the couple who control the beggars in London, taking a commission from everything the beggars bring in. Even poverty is a business in this version of London. The Peachums set out to avenge Macheath's dishonoring of their daughter. Brecht's message is, essentially, "follow the money." In a society built of thievery and bribery, the winner is the person who can offer the highest bribes and who can extort most effectively.
The Atlantic Theatre production, directed by Martha Clarke, is not perfect by any means, but it is well worth seeing. The musical values are very good. The band, using Weill's wonderful orchestrations, is excellent and the singers are all fine. I would have liked more vocal contrast between Laura Osnes's Polly and Sally Murphy's Jenny. Both have lovely lyric soprano voices, but I think Jenny needs a tougher sound. Still, I can't fault Murphy's performance of the classic "Pirate Jenny." She also brought more intensity to her acting than anyone else. Michael Park, the Macheath, had a solid baritone voice. Everyone else sang as well as their characters demanded. It may seem odd to begin with the musical values, but THREEPENNY OPERA is revived because of the brilliant musical numbers. It's a great score, encompassing everything from Bach-like fugues and chorales to tangos and foxtrots. This production does justice to this great score and that is reason enough to see it. There's even a musical bonus, an extra solo for Lucy, taken from the Brecht/Weill "Das Berliner Requiem."
At this point (the show is still in previews), the dialogue scenes need work. They seem underrehearsed and lack any rhythm. This is particularly a problem in musical theatre. The dialogue must have as much forward momentum and definite tempo as the music. Clarke seems to know what to do with performers singing, but not what to do with performers talking. Every great veteran actors like F. Murray Abraham and Mary Beth Peil as the elder Peachums seem to be at a bit of a loss in terms of finding a style for the work. Clarke's staging is eccentric. For some reason, she avoids placing actors in the center of the playing area, favoring the extreme sides. Perhaps this is her idea of Brechtian alienation, but it means that much of the playing area is empty for long periods of time. She does use a curtain that only covers the bottom half of the stage, a Brechtian device, but doesn't use the titles Brecht wanted to introduce each scene. There is no need to adhere to Brecht's directorial style. What the production lacks, however, is any consistent directorial style to replace Brecht's ideas. The production may find itself with more previews, but I think it needed a different director.
Nonetheless, one doesn't get many opportunities to see this twentieth century musical theatre masterpiece and the music is performed very well. That's reason enough to see this production.
THE THREEPENNY OPERA. Atlantic Theater Company, March 15, 2014.