Nearly 70 years after its debut, “The Threepenny Opera” retains its cunning lethal edge, its cynical social commentary and, best of all, Kurt Weill’s trenchant and melodic score. The New Jersey Shakespeare Festival celebrates its 35th anniversary with the North American premiere of a new translation by Robert David MacDonald, initially presented at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 1994. The adaptation offers a swifter narrative, bluntly focused and accessible in terms of characterization.
The real asset here is the imaginative contemporary staging. Director Paul Mullins makes the descent into a visually cold and surreal underworld, where yellow police tape marks the scene of a murder and master criminals use laptop computers. Brawls are staged in stealthy slow motion, and the viewer feels threatened by the steely glare of silent beggars, whores and cutthroats.
Adapting to the vast stage of a new performing arts center and former movie palace, while the festival awaits next season’s remodeled home on the campus of Drew U. in Madison, designer P.K. Wish has devised a stylized set incorporating rolling towers of pipes, planks and canvas drops, which reach high above and deep into ominous shadows. Imagery from Warhol posters and miniskirted hookers update the sordid atmosphere of the Weill-Brecht landscape.
The players make a surly band of rogues and strumpets, effectively gritty, and all sing with potent conviction. Stephen Lee Anderson is an imposing Macheath. Balding and brooding, he governs his misfits with icy authority. Kristie Dale Sanders seems a touch too well-scrubbed as his bride, Polly Peachum, but delivers “Pirate Jenny” atop a wedding banquet table with plenty of urgency and spunk. The beggar king Peachum is properly unsavory and avaricious as acted by Ron Lee Savin, as is his plumpish, wide-eyed and tipsy wife (Debbie Lee Jones). Best is Gayton Scott as Jenny Diver, the bitter and vengeful moll who betrays Mack. She captures the sardonic bite of corruption with “The Song of Solomon.”
Before getting his throat neatly sliced, Joshua Finkel’s street singer sings the exploits of “Mack, the Knife,” with a voice of impending doom. The musical accompaniment captures the tinny, syncopated sound of Soho street music most accurately, proving that ol’ Mackie and Kurt Weill are back in town and most welcome.