Timing is everything. While any time is ostensibly the right time for “The Threepenny Opera,” the enterprise has been trumped this season by an exemplary application of Brechtian staging principles to depict a society rotten to the core in Broadway’s riveting reinvention of “Sweeney Todd.” Even without the stiff competition, however, the landmark Brecht-Weill musical would be a botched job this time around, directed and adapted with sledgehammer subtlety by Scott Elliott and Wallace Shawn, respectively. While the cast is game and talented, the production is sunk by its one-note sleaziness and puerile provocation. Forget alienation effect, this is just plain off-putting.
Given that it clobbers you over the head with surfaced subtext for nearly three hours, the show should come with a migraine warning. Elliott has taken his cue from the decadent past of the Studio 54 venue, piling on enough gutter glamour and chic perversion to animate a whole summer of gay circuit parties, plus a touring company or two of “The Rocky Horror Show.”
The deeply misguided, disco-dancing finale — with a muscle-boy royal messenger descending in gold hot pants and glitter boots on a neon horse to liberate Macheath — might tickle the coke-addled ghosts haunting the legendary temple of debauchery. But it won’t soothe the spirit of Bertolt Brecht.
The fundamental flaw here is that the material itself becomes secondary to the director’s imprint on it. In Brecht’s anticapitalist play — as in John Gay’s 18th-century “The Beggar’s Opera,” on which it was based — the distinctions are blurred between bourgeois society, with its corrupt, wealthy power brokers, and the criminal underworld of pimps, whores, cut-throats and thieves. Elliott blunts the satire by stridently accentuating the low-life depravity while neglecting to summon any real menace.
Some of the staging is effective. The “beggars” enter from the audience onto a naked stage, plucking costumes from racks and applying makeup during the overture. Jenny (Cyndi Lauper), the prostitute former lover of outlaw Macheath (Alan Cumming), begins the “Moritat” (here titled “Song of the Extraordinary Crimes of Mac the Knife”) unaccompanied, before being joined by the ensemble in a gruesome kickline under a jumble of multicolored neon identifying the play’s locations.
But things get bogged down immediately thereafter with the book scenes, which generally are flat and tedious. Shawn’s jokey adaptation trivializes the play into a lurid burlesque without texture, alternating moments of vaudeville and British music hall with sketch comedy and belabored illustrations of current relevance.
Warmongering gets a look in with a sing-along “Army Song” in which “new recruits learn to hate different cultures”; the recasting as a transvestite of Lucy Brown (Brian Charles Rooney), bisexual bigamist Macheath’s secret bride, allows for a nod to gay marriage; and, worst of all, consumer culture is ham-handedly lampooned in “The Ballad of the Happy Life,” when Macheath is joined by a chorus emblazoned with corporate brand names. Trailing them is that mascot of greed, Mrs. Peachum (Ana Gasteyer), here trussed up in a tarty faux-Chanel suit and Ivana Trump hairdo.
Shawn’s vulgarized lyrics (it becomes numbingly predictable that “China” will be rhymed with “vagina,” and “pluck” will beget “fuck”) lack the poetry and storytelling flow of, say, Marc Blitzstein’s translation. As always, Weill’s dissonant score remains the show’s chief enticement; the composer’s original orchestrations are vigorously played by a 10-member ensemble led by music director Kevin Stites.
Vocally, too, “Threepenny” is well served. Stepping in after Edie Falco dropped out due to “Sopranos” commitments, Lauper betrays a hint of impersonation in her Weimar warbling, but the pop diva knows how to command an audience in a song, which makes up for her slightly stiff acting. Her lovely, rueful take on “Solomon Song” benefits enormously from the simple staging. Likewise her betrayal tango with Macheath, “The Ballad of the Pimp,” one of the few places where Aszure Barton’s Fosse-macabre choreography doesn’t look mannered.
The Mohawk-coiffed Cumming can play sinister, lewd charm in his sleep, and the inevitable comparisons with his thrilling Emcee turn in “Cabaret” on the same stage a few years back make his casting less interesting. He too readily indulges the production’s tendency toward crotch-thrusting excess, so there’s nothing chilling about his winking Macheath as he courts the audience’s complicity. Cumming is best in back-to-back numbers near the close of the show, summoning bitter intensity when his survival is threatened in “Call From the Grave” and “The Ballad in Which Macheath Asks Everyone’s Forgiveness.”
Jim Dale brings wily vaudevillian humor to the unscrupulous Mr. Peachum, particularly in the jaunty “Song of Inadequacy of Human Striving.” As his venal wife, Gasteyer’s powerhouse pipes, coupled with her shrill comic characterization, become a little wearing. Doing distaff duty with smirking aplomb, Rooney displays a fine soprano on “The Jealousy Duet” and “Lucy’s Aria,” sung in German.
The real surprise is singer-songwriter Nellie McKay, a genuinely odd and appealing stage presence who seems to have time-traveled in from another era. Dressed in dusty, corpse-bride white, and with her fresh-faced looks, dreamy eccentricity and sing-song dialogue delivery, McKay is an arresting match for Macheath’s young wife, Polly Peachum. She gets the balance of naivety and cunning just right, and her savvy spin on “Pirate Jenny” and “The ‘No’ Song” places them among the production’s better numbers.
Costumer Isaac Mizrahi appears to be channeling Vivienne Westwood with a dash of Versace. But the outre goth/punk fetishism of the outfits (Carlos Leon’s platform thigh boots and vinyl microshorts being the most over the top) feels more like an attention-grabbing Halloween dress-up stunt than a seriously subversive interpretation of the material. That flash-trash aspect pretty much echoes Elliott’s skin-deep investigation overall.