The Threepenny Opera, Philadelphia

Written by:
Lewis Whittington
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Victoria Frings as Polly and Terence Archie as Macheath
in Arden Theatre Co.’s “Threepenny Opera”
Photo by Mark Garvin

The Threepenny Opera

Music by Kurt Weill
Book and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht (with Elisabeth Hauptmann)
Directed by Terrence J. Nolen
Arden Theatre Co., Philadelphia
Through Nov. 7, 2010

Mack the Knife was the pop version of violent scoundrel Macheath from John Gay’s scabrous 1728 English satire, “The Beggar’s Opera,” turned even more salacious in Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera.” By the 1930s, this socio-political and sexually explicit shocker was a hit all over Europe and banned by the Nazis as degenerate art. With its story of murder, sedition, greed and exploitation and otherwise dripping with venality, “Threepenny” is pretty much always relevant.

Arden director Terrence Nolen likes to do musical theater with a social message, and this one has many of them, which he fires with stealth poison arrows when he isn’t lobbing them like clay bricks. References to current political ugliness, from tea baggers and professional politicians, for instance, are clumsy markers rather than pointed satire. But, mixed messages aside, this “Threepenny” has a lot going for it — the design work top-notch, with atmospherics that keep things interesting when the dialogue isn’t.

The three-story girder matrix opens up a staging arena complete with exposed dressing rooms and recessed loft for the hot Weill band. With deft music direction by Eric Ebbenga, this band’s punch-drunk horns and chugging percussion showed complete understanding of Weill’s cabaret art music.

Anthony Lawton croons “The Flick Knife Song” (or “Mack, the Knife”) leading off a fine cast of singers, in front of the red burlesque fly-by curtains. This was the first of many darkly glittering stage pictures achieved by set designer Tom Gleeson and lighting designer Tom Weaver, whose back alley dank lighting is intoxicating stage noir. Jorge Cousineau’s video installation is also winning with silvery saturation, especially the moon skies on brick fantasy. Rosemarie McKelvey’s animated costume design, most fetishista couture, is a runway all its own.

Terence Archie’s Macheath is a hunky, suave operator with hair-trigger masks that need calibration. He’s more interesting as he builds terrific chemistry with Victoria Frings, who plays Polly Peachum, one of his convenient brides. Frings belts out “Pirate Jenny” standing on the wedding table; aside from being a fabulous show soprano, Frings also breezily nails the hard-boiled character comedy.

Lawton also plays many sides as police captain Tiger Brown, who colludes with MacHeath. Scott Greer is too serious and Mary Martello is overanimated as the exploiting Peachums who set up their beggars grift shop. They make up for it in their songs together, especially Martello, who is not afraid to skirt dissonance to articulate Weill at his most acidic.

Rachel Wallace stalks the otherwise bloodless brothel scene where Macheath tries to hide out, until it suddenly becomes a stunner centerpiece of the act with Archie and Wallace’s sublime duet on “The Pimp’s Tango.” Act III has Macheath jailed, waiting for execution, trying to bribe his way out, but the dialogue seems trapped, too.

The many translations and revisions of “Threepenny” have led to a certain script brittleness. By now, lewdness that had punch in a repressive age borders on self-parody, for instance. Nolen is expert in smoothing out clunky musicals. He worked wonders with such thorny shows as “Candide” and “Sunday in the Park With George.” With this, he runs the gamut: inventive pacing and character movement one moment and stiffly paced scenes the next. The erratic focus leads to some heavy lifting by the cast. Fortunately Nolen’s gritty supporting ensemble, doubling up in many parts as Mack’s gang, hustler bums and whorehouse workers, continually pick up the slack.

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