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Raleigh Little Theatre's ambitious production of The Threepenny Opera is the last show of this landmark theater's 75th anniversary season. What a fitting way to draw a special season to a close! RLT rises to the occasion with flair, bringing us a theater classic in which every note rings true.
The Threepenny Opera, by German dramatist Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill, was adapted from an 18th-century English ballad opera, John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. Offering its audience a Marxist critique of the capitalist world, it first opened in August, 1928, at Berlin's Theater am Schiffbauerdamm. By 1933, when Brecht and Weill were forced to leave Germany because of Hitler's rise, the play had been translated into 18 languages and performed more than 10,000 times on European stages. Clearly, it resonated — though darkly and bitterly — with its audiences, and it continues to do so today.
RLT's production, directed by Haskell Fitz-Simons, with music direction by Julie A. Florin, uses an English adaptation by Marc Blitzstein. The directors' attention to detail is evident throughout and pays off in spades with a gritty, fast-paced production showcasing the shady, cynical underside of human nature in such a convincing way that the audience collectively winces at times. Actors' voices are raw and at times deliberately nasal, often teetering on hysteria, with singing that is always in tune but often uncomfortably edgy. British accents are, for the most part, completely credible, and transport us to 19th-century London in a most convincing way. Excellent choreography by Nancy Rich and beautifully outrageous costumes by Vicki Olson shore up the stylized and slick cynicism that runs throughout the work. Even when we're amused by the grotesque sexualized displays in the Wapping Brothel, for example, we can't help but be mortified at our own amusement. Brecht's point, after all, is to make us question conventional wisdom, and he is a master at making the audience twitch with a discomfort that borders on embarrassment.
Set in 1837 Victorian London, before and during Queen Victoria's coronation, the play focuses on Macheath (Mack the Knife, played by Mark Ridenour), an amoral, antiheroic criminal. Macheath's cynical marriage to the innocent Polly Peachum (Kate P. Bowra) displeases her father, J. J. Peachum (Stuart Byham), who controls the beggars of London, and he endeavors to have Macheath hanged. His attempts are hindered by the fact that Tiger Brown, the Commissioner of Police (Warren Keyes), is Macheath's old army comrade and partner in shady activity. Eventually, Macheath is arrested and sentenced to hang, but he escapes his fate via a deus ex machina moment before the execution when, in an unrestrained parody of a happy ending, a messenger from the Queen arrives to pardon Macheath and grant him the title of Baron.
The Threepenny Opera is a work of epic theater, not just because of its demands on cast and audience alike but because it poses such challenging questions. For example, "Who is the greater criminal: he who robs a bank or he who founds one?" Its cynical view of social niceties, of class distinctions, and of the bleak nature of life lived in a constant struggle for basic subsistence, raises more questions than it answers. If one is looking to have one's faith in humanity restored, this is not the play to see. Far from offering a feel-good night at the theater, this play exposes its audience to the dark side of human nature, where everything is for sale and where human kindness is rarely in sight. Depravity, greed, fear, and disillusionment are constant themes. If one character, aside from Macheath, sums up these themes perfectly, it is Mrs. Peachum (Alison B. Lawrence). Cynical, hard as nails, yet with perfect deadpan timing (and wonderfully exaggerated hair), Mrs. Peachum's "Ballad of Dependency" says it all, as does the first act's finale, "The World is Mean." Street Singers (Rose Martin and Brent Wilson) add a distinctly creepy edge to the beginning of each scene, and the entire cast is formidably talented. Mack's Gang (Joshua Broadhurst, Jonathan Lowry, Christopher R. Daniels, and Matt Gromlich) is delightfully clueless and provides needed comic relief.
The Threepenny Opera is an early example of modern musical comedy, with a score deeply influenced by jazz. Its opening and closing lament, "The Ballad of Mack the Knife," has become a famous jazz standard. Other striking songs are "Pirate Jenny," the "Jealousy Duet", and "Solomon Song." All are sung with fervor and resonate amazingly well with contemporary American life, touching on universal human truths. RLT's pit orchestra, consisting of piano, reeds, trumpets, guitar, banjo, and drums, is beautifully versatile, making the most of the edgy score.
This show runs through June 19; for details, see the sidebar. Another production is featured this summer at the Brevard Music Festival, starting July 14. For details, click here.