Sunday, April 09, 2006

A Quarter for Weill and Brecht

If your idea of The Threepenny Opera is Bobby Darrin singing "Mack the Knife" or the early 1930's G.W. Pabst German film, then you are in for a shock. This production of this landmark musical is scathing, sexually provocative, and totally Brechtian in its approach and delivery. Not surprisingly, theater goers raised on The Lion King and Cats will leave the theater with a sour taste in their mouth when it is over, and that's exactly what the original creators of this work would have wanted you to feel.

Written in the heyday of the Weimar Republic, when the number of the poor grew to monumental proportions and a chosen few were rolling in it, the present production tries to make a historical connection between that sorry period of Germany's past and our present state of affairs. The show's economic criticism could very well be directed at its own audience: at $111.25 per tickets the only ones who can afford to see The Threepenny Opera might just be the fatcats that the show rages against. When Broadway starts biting the hand that feeds it that is the sure recipe for slow box-office receipts and short runs.

The show certainly has star power: Alan Cumming, Cyndi Lauper, Jim Dale and Ana Gasteyer (she got a big hand in her entrance -- it was obviously a television SNL crowd that packed the theater today) are all good, but it was Brian Charles Rooney who stole the show with his gender-bending take on Lucy Brown. I see a Tony nomination in his future. I found both Mr. Cumming and Ms. Lauper lacking voice-power, although she sang a memorable "Salomon Song," and he commands the stage with that same genuine presence that he had in Cabaret. Unfortunately he was pushing a bit on his vocal chords, and Ms. Lauper's voice is in need of coaching. I do hope that this run does not harm her voice further.

There is a warning outside the theater that the show has full frontal nudity (yes, it does!) and that the language is adult and not recommended for children. This is true, and although most of the adult moments do come straight from the texture of the narrative, there are a few new indiscretions that were not found in the original Brecht script.

The new translation by Wallace Shawn tries to get back to the spirit of the original Brecht, but it tries too hard, in my opinion, to be lewd. My favorite English translation of this work is the one by Ralph Manheim and John Willett for the New York Shakespeare Festival back in 1976. That production brought the work back to a more authentic Brechtian language. The wondrous LP cast album of that production, featuring Raul Julia as Macheath, has never made it to CD, and it is time that it did.

Finally, the wardrobe by designer Isaac Mizrahi is elegant and sleazy, with the right amount of bling to make it tawdry.

I recommend that you see this production if you have never seen The Threepenny Opera live. It is one of the landmarks of the 20th century, and it can be indestructible no matter what you do to it.

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