A Noise Within kicks off its Spring 2015 season with a sensationally performed and designed revival of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. Theatergoers who’ve not acquired a taste for Brecht’s brand of early 20th-century avant-garde or Weill’s dirge-like melodies may find its three-hour running time a bit of a long haul, however those with a fondness for Threepenny (and they are, I am told, legion) will find themselves in Brecht/Weill heaven.
Composer Weill and book writer/lyricist Brecht’s 1928 adaptation of John Gay’s 18th Century The Beggar’s Opera is one of the earliest examples of modern musical comedy, its 1956 off-Broadway production running a then unheard of (for an off-Broadway show) 2,707 performances and spawning one of the biggest pop hits of the 1950s, Bobby Darin’s “Mack The Knife.”
It’s “The Ballad Of Mack The Knife” that opens The Threepenny Opera, though its slow-tempo ensemble rendition proves a far cry from Darin’s catchy, sing-along hit. (Jerry Herman-style show tunes Kurt Weill most definitely did not write, and other than “Mack,” you’ll likely not find yourself humming along to any of them or recalling other than “Mack” once you’ve left the theater.)
We then meet Polly Peachum (Marisa Duchowny), daughter of Victorian London “beggar boss” Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum (Geoff Elliott), and her lover Macheath (Andrew Ableson), aka Mack The Knife, infamous for using his knife to bloody effect and the man for whom Polly finds herself willing to abandon hearth and home.
At least two rivals for Macheath’s affections stand in Polly’s way—Lucy Brown (Maegan McConnell), daughter of London Police Chief Jackie “Tiger” Brown (Jeremy Rabb), and Jenny Diver (Stasha Surdyke), prostitute par excellence.
For a show filled with songs in minor chords, Brecht’s book is often delightfully jokey. Still, despite the happy ending it affords it hero and audience, this is not what you’d call a “feel-good” show. A strange bird, indeed, this Threepenny Opera.
That being said, highly imaginative direction by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and husband Geoff, DeReau K. Farrar’s superb musical direction and the production’s equally superb live orchestra*, a couldn’t-be-better twenty-member cast, and a design team extraordinaire combine to create quite a production, one that Brecht/Weill aficionados are sure to love.
The Elliotts’ direction is suitably heightened and sprinkled with slapstick sequences throughout. Brecht’s dialog (the 1989 Michael Feingold version used here is one of numerous translations) does not encourage the kind of “natural” acting contemporary audiences are accustomed to, thus the performances elicited by the Elliotts are appropriately broad.
As the darkly dangerous antihero Macheath, Ableson positively dazzles in this role of a lifetime, revealing a sly sense of humor, smoldering sexuality, and some terrific pipes.
Duchowny’s Polly gives Lady Gaga a run for her money, the recent star of Laguna Playhouse’s Striking 12 revealing ample comedic gifts and a glorious soprano/pop belt in equal measure. On a roll since her Scenie-winning Best Understudy star turn in Boston Court’s Stupid Fucking Bird, Surdyke burns up the stage as a luscious, leggy Jenny Diver, stunning, sexy, and with a great set of mezzo pipes to boot. McConnell is wonderful, too, as Lucy Driver, her gorgeous soprano and comedic gifts both on display.
Elliott and the divine Deborah Strang are scene-stealers as Peachum and his missus, a pair who could just as easily have emerged from the pages of Dickens.
The same can be said of Peachum’s band of thieves and beggars—E.K. Dagenfield as Filch/Weeping Willow Walt, Jack Elliott as Jimm, Fionn James as Ned, Henry Noble as Matt The Mint, Matthew Ian Welch as Sawtooth Bob, and a particularly dynamic Abubakr Ali as Crook-Fingered Jack, all of them bona fide laugh-getters.
There’s terrific work, too, from Rabb and from Toby Dalton Riggle as both Reverend Kimball and Constable Smith. As for Jenny’s stable of whores, they are an eye-catching bunch indeed, headed by Alison Elliott’s Dolly, and featuring Laura Lee Caudill, Shea Donovan, Aly Easton, Carly Pandža, and Nichole Trugler.
As was the case with A Noise Within’s Man Of La Mancha, there’s less dancing here than might usually be the case, but Sergio Leal and Isabella Grosso from Latin Dance Pro get deserved program credit.
If there’s anything that makes A Noise Within’s Threepenny Opera worth catching in addition to all of the above, it’s the production’s utterly stunning look. Scenic designer Frederica Nascimento makes use of the entire A Noise Within stage, stripped almost bare to allow multiple moving scaffolds and other set pieces (and scenic painter Orlando de la Paz’s artwork) to weave their magic spell under Ken Booth’s gorgeous lighting.
Angela Balogh Calin’s fabulous costumes, whether frilly-and-fanciful or rough-and-ragged, once again steal the show along with Gieselle Blair’s deliberately outrageous hair, wig, and makeup design, with additional kudos to props master Marissa Bergman.
Sound consultant Robert Oriel and audio engineer Aaron Michaud expertly mix voices and instruments with crystal clarity. Nike Doukas is dialog coach and Maria Uribe costume shop coordinator.
Juliana McBride is stage manager, Samantha Sintef assistant stage manager, and Marc Chernoff technical director. James & Trevessa Terrile are production sponsors.
Ultimately, though The Threepenny Opera itself remains not-particularly-this-reviewer’s-cup-of-tea, I can’t deny having been impressed by its latest staging at A Noise Within. I’m guessing that Brecht/Weil fans will be more than willing to spend a lot more than three pennies a ticket to see it.
*Tim Curle, Melissa Sky-Eagle, Adam Liebreich-Johnson, Robert Oriol, Angela Romero, Scott Rowe, and Wes Smith.
A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd, Pasadena.
February 21, 2105
Photos: Craig Schwartz