Many (many) years ago, songs used to regularly move from the stage to the popular charts (unlike today’s trend of taking songs on the popular charts and assembling them into a show). This movement was such that many people didn’t know the stage origins of the songs. Some examples are songs like “Hey, Look Me Over” (which came from Wildcat), “The Ballad of the Shape of Things” (which came from The Littlest Revue), or “Hey Jimmie Joe John Jim Jack” (from Let It Ride). Two great examples of this are the songs “Mack The Knife” (made very popular by Bobby Darin and Louis Armstrong) and “Pirate Jenny” (also known as “The Black Freighter”) (made popular by artists such as Judy Collins and Steeleye Span). Both of these songs actually came from a popular 1929 music by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill called “The Threepenny Opera“. Although it was a popular musical in its day, you don’t see productions of it all that often these days. So when I learned that Pasadena’s A Noise Within (FB) was doing the show in repertory with Figaro and Julius Caesar I blocked a date and started looking for tickets. Previews of the show started yesterday, and we were there for the first preview.
The Threepenny Opera is an interesting show. It started out as a German adaptation of John Gay’s The Beggars Opera. Although called an opera, it really isn’t; nor is it a traditional musical. It is really a play with musical interludes. Today, however, people think of it as a musical (but then again, people’s knowledge of the story comes from the Moritat, “Mack the Knife”). It is a very dark show, commenting on the underbelly of society — beggars, prostitutes, thiefs, whores, and the corrupt police. In many ways, it reminded me of Gilbert and Sullivan in that it seemed intent on skewering and commenting on the structure of society — nowhere is this better seen by the end of the show, where Macheath is saved from the gallows and elevated to be a hereditory peer. I also have recollections (although I can’t confirm them online) that the show was intended not for the upper class opera crowd, but for the everyday public who couldn’t afford shows. Whether that recollection is true, the show is often staged as if it was — fancy productions are eschewed for rougher productions. In fact, many shows open with the reminder: An opera for beggars. Conceived with magnificence such as only beggars could imagine, and an economy such as only beggars could afford…The Threepenny Opera!”
The story of The Threepenny Opera revolves around two principle characters: Macheath (“Mack the Knife”) and Polly Peachum. Mac makes his living through theft, murder, and other crimes. Peachum income — actually, her parent’s income — comes from the beggars of London, whom Mr. Peachum has organized, outfitted to best appeal and allocated throughout the city (skimming a hefty percentage from the top). Other principle characters include Tiger Brown, an Army buddy of Macheath now a police officer in London who watches out for his friend (and gets kickbacks); Brown’s daughter Lucy, who is seemingly pregnant by Macheath; and Jenny Diver, a prostitute who used to be Mac’s girlfriend. A Noise Within describes the story as follows (edited a little):
The story begins in the shop of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, who controls London’s beggars, equipping and training them in return for a cut of their earnings. He enlists a new beggar with the help of his wife, after which time they notice that their grown daughter Polly did not come home the previous night. The scene shifts to an empty stable where Macheath is about to marry Polly as soon as his gang has stolen and brought all the necessary food and furnishings. No vows are exchanged, but Polly is satisfied, and everyone sits down to a banquet. Since none of the gang members can provide fitting entertainment, Polly does it herself. The gang gets nervous when Chief of Police Tiger Brown arrives, but Brown turns out to be an old army buddy of Mack’s who has prevented him from being arrested all these years. Everyone else exits and Mack and Polly celebrate their love. Polly returns home and defiantly announces her marriage, as her parents urge her to get a divorce and Mrs. Peachum resolves to bribe Mack’s favorite prostitutes. Polly reveals Mack’s ties to Brown, which gives Mr. and Mrs. Peachum an idea about how to snare Mack, and the trio meditates on the world’s corruption. // Polly tells Mack that her father will have him arrested. He makes arrangements to leave London, explaining his bandit “business” to Polly so she can manage it in his absence, and departs. Polly takes over the gang decisively as Mrs. Peachum bribes Jenny, Mack’s old lover, to turn him in. On the way out of London, Mack stops at his favorite brothel to visit Jenny. Smith arrives and apologetically arrests Mack, who goes to jail. He bribes the guard to remove his handcuffs; then his wife, Lucy—Brown’s daughter—arrives and declares her love. Polly arrives, and she and Lucy quarrel. After Polly leaves, Lucy engineers Mack’s escape. When Mr. Peachum finds out, he threatens Brown and forces him to send the police after Mack, which engenders another mediation on the unpleasant human condition. // Jenny comes to the Peachums’ shop to demand her bribe money, which Mrs. Peachum refuses to pay. Jenny reveals that Mack is at Suky Tawdry’s house. When Brown arrives, determined to arrest Peachum and the beggars, he is horrified to learn that the beggars are already in position and only Mr. Peachum can stop them. To placate Peachum, Brown’s only option is to arrest Mack and have him executed. Jenny mourns Mack’s plight. In the next scene, Mack is back in jail. He begs the gang to raise a sufficient bribe, but they cannot. A parade of visitors—Brown, Jenny, Peachum, and Polly—enters as Mack prepares to die. Then a sudden reversal: A messenger on horseback arrives to announce that Macheath has been pardoned by the Queen and granted a castle and pension.
Note that the story is in some sense fluid. The original was in German, and there have been numerous translations. I was most familiar with the Marc Blitzstein translation from 1954 (as that was the recorded version I have) — this has the best known lyrics for Mack the Knife and Pirate Jenny, and allocates Pirate Jenny to Jenny in Act I. ANW’s used the Michael Feingold version developed for Broadway in 1989 (with Sting as Macheath). This version returned Pirate Jenny to its original performer and place (sung by Polly Peachum to entertain at the “wedding” in Act I), and made some lyrical changes that made some songs a bit jarring (in particular, Pirate Jenny doesn’t refer to “The Black Freighter” but a Galleon). However, that is not the fault of this particular production; productions often use the most recent translation.
ANW’s production, which was directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott, made a number of production decisions that, in my opinion, hurt the production. Before I go into them, I must note that what I saw was a preview (in fact, the first preview), so there is a good chance that these may be corrected by the official opening. I hope they are.
As ANW’s production opened, the cast members were strewn around the auditorium saying random things in character. The point of this was unclear. Was it to establish character? We had no idea who these overly costumed folks were. Create ambiance? Unclear. The show then started with the lights dimming, the overture starting, the characters assembling in chairs onstage, and launching into The Ballad of Mack the Knife. There was not a balladeer, nor was there an announcement made to remind the audience (which, being a Sunday matinee, was loaded with senior citizens) to turn off their cell phones. I think this was a poor decision for the opening. These days we need “the announcement” (as we were reminded when someone’s cell phone went off loudly about 20 minutes in); I also think the balladeer is a better way to present the Moritat than a group choral number with alternating parts.
There were other jarring technical aspects as well, which I’ll get out of the way before we launch into the good. As this was a preview, all of these may be corrected by the official opening. The lighting design by Ken Booth was, in short, distracting. There were moving lights moving for no purpose other than to distract, and lekos going off and on in the back — again, seemingly only to distract. The overall lighting was dark — not only in mood (which was understandable) but in intensity. This often left the performers in shadow, which isn’t good. The costume design (by Angela Balogh Calin (FB)) and hair, wig, and makeup design (by Gieselle Blair (FB)) also had an occasional jarring aspects. In particular, the eyebrows on many of the actors were overdone, which served to distract rather than to illuminate. I also found Polly Peachum’s outfit distracting — in particular, the hose, as there were dark splotches that made me constantly wonder if it was a hosiery effect or if the hose was hiding tattoos. All of these were unnecessary distractions — and luckily, I believe all of them are easily correctable (and, hopefully, will be corrected during the preview process). They are also non-fatal.
Luckily, the performances themselves were quite good (modulo the common problem with shows set in England of American performers doing English accents so heavy that they are hard to understand). All of the leads had wonderful voices and performed their characters well. There were some slight elements of overplay, but that’s a suspension-of-concern as I believe that is the nature of this show. There wasn’t quite the joy in the characters I like to see, but that could be reflective of (a) this being an early preview, before the actors have gotten to know the characters well, and (b) this being a repertory production where the actors are regularly swapping their characters for others in Figaro or Caesar. It could also just be the fact that this is a dark show: there’s no joy of the actors in their characters because there is little joy in the characters themselves.
In the leading tier of performers were Andrew Ableson (FB) as Macheath and Marisa Duchowny (FB) as Polly Peachum. We’ve seen Ableson before in both Ionescapde and The Beastly Bombing. Both had lovely voices and handled their numbers well. I particularly liked Duchowny’s “Pirate Jenny”, and all of Ableson’s numbers. Immediately supporting them were Geoff Elliott as Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum and Deborah Strang (FB) as Mrs. Peachum. Elliott’s Mr. Peachum had the appropriate gravitas and stench of corruption for the character; Strang’s Mrs. Peachum blended a bit more in the background, but came out strong in her interactions with Jenny Diver (especially in the middle of Act II). Both sang their numbers well, and moved quite well when they climbed the scaffolding.
In the next tier are probably the last well known characters: Jeremy Rabb (FB) as Tiger Brown; Stasha Surdyke (FB) as Jenny Diver, Maegan McConnell as Lucy Brown. We’ve seen Ms. McConnell before, back in the East-West production of Pippin. I recall liking McConnell’s take on Catherine there, and she did a lovely take on Lucy Brown here (both in singing and performance). Surdyke’s Jenny was also strong, especially in the opening number for Act II and the number with the ropes. Rabb was also good as Tiger Brown — he was notable not only in his number with Macheath, but his number and performance in the closing where he essentially explained why the large painting of the horse we see at the beginning of Act I looks so odd.
Rounding out the characters in the show are the crew supporting Macheath, the beggars supporting the Peachums, and the various prostitutes supporting Jenny. Although some of these characters have names, the story is such that you never get a sense of them as characters. All performed well. This tier consisted of: E. K. Dagenfield (FB) (Filch/Weeping Willow Walt), Henry Noble (Matt the Mint), Abubakr Ali (FB) (Crook-Fingered Jack), Matthew Ian Welch (FB) (Sawtooth Bob), Jack Elliott (Jimmy), Fionn James (Ned), Alison Elliott (FB) (Dolly), and the ensemble members: Laura Lee Caudill (FB), Shea Donovan (FB), Aly Easton (FB), Zachary Kahn (FB), Carly Pandža (FB), Toby Dalton Riggle, and Nichole Trugler (FB).
In terms of music and movement, the production was reasonable. There were no choreography credits, so presumably much of the movement came from the directoral team. Sergio Leal and Isabella Grosso from Latin Dance Pro were consultants for the tango. The music was under the direction of DeReau K. Farrar (FB), who also served as conductor of the 7 member band: Melissa Sky-Eagle on keyboards, Scott Roewe and Wes Smith on woodwinds, Angela Romero on trumpet, Adam Liebreich-Johnson on tenor and bass trombone, Robert Oriol (FB) on guitar, banjo, and bass, and Tim Curle on percussion. In general, the orchestra provided a good sound. There was the occasional dissonance — I’m not sure if it was a flat, a minor note, or intentional — but it seemed to fit with the nature of the beggar’s production, so I’m going with intentional. Only occasionally did the music overpower the singers.
Turning to the technical side now. The scenic design by Frederica Nascimento was on the order of… what scenic design. I don’t necessarily mean this in a bad way. The scenic design was simple — lots of visible scaffolding, hand painted signage, hand labeled boxes, and little things to suggest location. It worked well for a repertory production, but it definitely wasn’t elaborate. It gave off the sense of this being an itinerant theatre troupe giving a cheap touring production — which I guess was the intent. It was supported by the props from Marissa Bergman (FB) which worked well. I’ve commented on Ken Booth‘s lighting before: there were lots of lights in the back blinking on and off for no apparent reason, and there were times the lighting bridge was lowered — again, for no clear reason. Lighting should be invisible and subtly create the mood; this wasn’t. The sound design under sound consultant Robert Oriol (FB) was reasonable, although the leads could have done with stronger amplification to make theme clearer. For the most part (i.e., modulo the minor problem in Polly’s costume) the costumes of Angela Balogh Calin (FB) worked well. Similarly, modulo the occasional distracting eyebrow, Gieselle Blair makeup worked well. It was a little overdone, but that’s the style of this form of show — it’s not as naturalistic as Saturday’s production of Loch Ness was. Remaining technical credits were: Aaron Michaud/FB (Audio Engineer), Juliana McBride (FB) (Stage Manager), Nike Doukas (Dialect Coach), Marc Chernoff/FB (Technical Director), Maria Uribe/FB (Costume Shop Coordinator), Orlando de La Paz (Scenic Painter), and Samantha Sintef (Assistant Stage Manager).
I’ll also note that I found ANW’s program to be one of the more confusing programs out there: a thick booklet consisting of a few pages on each show, followed by an alphabetical listing of all the actors in all the shows combined. Although this does make sense for a repertory company, it makes it hard for an audience to read about the actors in their particular performance. I was pleasantly surprised at the large number of actors in this show that had their own webpages (good). As I tend to add Facebook links, I’ll also note that I had a large number of people that had learned to limit the visibility of their friendslist (a good thing, security-wise), and there was a larger proportion of people without Facebook links. Is this an indication of the decline of Facebook? I remember when I used to always include MySpace links until no one maintained them anymore. But I digress.
The Threepenny Opera continues in repertory with Figaro and Julius Caesar through May 9 (Threepenny runs Feb 15 through May 9; Figaro runs March 1 through May 10; Caesar runs March 22 through May 8). The official opening night is February 21. Tickets are available through the ANW Box Office, and on Goldstar. Even with the technical distractions (which will hopefully be corrected) this is a production worth seeing: Threepenny is rarely done in Southern California, and this one is done reasonably well.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Upcoming Shows: February concludes with a lot of theatre in Burbank. The weekend of February 21 sees us in Burbank for Inside Out at the Grove Theatre Center (FB). February closes with two more Burbank performances: the Good People Theatre Co (FB)’s production of Maltby/Shire’s Closer Than Ever at Hollywood Piano in the afternoon, and “The Road to Appomattox” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on February 28. March is equally busy, with the MRJ Man of the Year dinner on March 7 (and a Purim Carnival at TAS the next day), “Carrie: The Musical” at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) on March 14, a “Drowsy Chaperone” at CSUN on Friday March 20, “Doubt” at REP East (FB) on Saturday March 21, “Newsies” at the Pantages (FB) on March 28, followed by Pesach and the Renaissance Faire on April 11. Other than the Faire, April is pretty much open (as is May), but I expect that to start changing soon (for example, I just booked “Loopholes” for the first weekend in May). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.