With Bebe Neuwirth presiding as its streetwalker-ringmistress, the circus of lowlifes that is “The Threepenny Opera” gets a vigorous airing in ACT artistic director Carey Perloff’s season-launching revival. But it’s two other unsavory females who periodically steal the spotlight here: Lisa Vroman’s catty Lucy and Nancy Dussault’s even more delicious Mrs. Peachum provide the most richly poisoned portraits in this satisfying if uneven mount of Brecht-Weill’s classic musical rogue’s gallery.
Utilizing Michael Feingold’s 1989 translation, the Perloff production adds some minor textual tweaks of its own, notably having Neurwirth’s Jenny (cutting an Elvira-like slinky Gothic figure in long jet-black hair, tuxedo jacket and red Chinoise minidress) double as emcee to deliver a pinspotted solo “Moritat” (aka “Mack the Knife”) as pre-overture kickoff.
The curtain rises to expose Annie Smart’s serviceable split-level alley set, with the six-piece Tivoli Orchestra visible on its balcony. A nameless city’s teeming “human pit” swirls onstage, its variously shady and desperate ensemble members marshaled into a street-begging racket by scam-capitalists Mr. and Mrs. Peachum (Steven Anthony Jones and Dussault).
This duo is highly displeased to discover its comely daughter Polly (Anika Noni Rose) has run away in the night, eloping with no less than notorious crime kingpin Machealth (Philip Casnoff). Exhibiting less parental concern than material-asset protectiveness, the Peachums figure “Mac” will use wedlock to wrest control of their own underworld syndicate.
Despite all past suspected crimes, Mac has so far escaped capture, due largely to the blind eye turned by childhood pal/police chief Tiger Brown (a fretful Charles Lanyer). But the Peachums plot his arrest and execution, bribing one-time pimp Mac’s former prostitute love Jenny Diver (Neuwirth) to tip police re his whereabouts.
Various reversals of fortune and counterintrigues pass before Brecht & Weill spring their most pessimistic irony of all — a hangman’s-noose-allaying deus ex machina that asserts “when there’s money for the lending/happy endings can be bought.”
Though not the darkest or most menacing “Threepenny” one could imagine, Perloff’s interp does capitalize on its robust humor and squalid spectacle. Smart’s costumes suggest a contemporary time frame that’s not overplayed and doesn’t jar too much against the text’s few dated references. (Most outre current-events ref is the appearance of a large poster showing S.F.’s present, controversially overweening Mayor Willie Brown as the city’s crowned “king.”)
Luis Perez’s staging of the musical numbers deploys simple but effective choreography to often clever ends, as when Mac performs his jail house “Ballad of Living in Style” as a soft-shoe dance — albeit one compromised by a leg manacle.
There are scattered dead spots amid the spoken sequences when the pacing goes a little slack; opening night also saw a few line-fluffing rough spots. The most gratuitous design fillip is an electronic-scroll screen stage rear announcing each song title.
In a generally strong cast, the least compellingly defined turns are from Rose’s Polly and Casnoff’s Macheath; they’re both vocally capable, but she’s a tad bland, and he’s a bit blase to fully limn this seminal antihero’s charismatic hold over women (not to mention the whole crime-ridden city). Neuwirth’s quavery alto and weary sensuality lend Jenny a vivid if somewhat monochromatic, stern presence; the comic chops she displayed in “Sweet Charity” and “Chicago” are MIA here.
More than compensating in that terrain is Vroman, who recently completed a 2 1/2-year run as Christine in S.F.’s resident “Phantom of the Opera.” Perhaps delighted to doff that role’s simpering nature, she plays police chief’s daughter (and Mac’s secret amour) Lucy with hilarious overbearing-diva hauteur, sustaining notes to epic, parodic length.
Better still is Broadway/cabaret/TV vet Dussault, here padded and waddling as the bossy, hypocritical Mrs. Peachum. Her “Ballad of the Prisoner of Sex” solo brings down the house. She’s nicely paired with Jones’ blustering Mr. P, even if his vocal skills are shaky at best.