The same week that Macheath escaped hanging in the Broomhill Opera’s South African adaptation of John Gay’s 1728 “The Beggar’s Opera” at New Haven’s Intl. Festival of Arts & Ideas, Macheath was again reprieved at the Williamstown Theater Festival. The event’s opening mainstage offering is a revival of “The Threepenny Opera,” Marc Blitzstein’s 1954 English-language adaptation of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s 1928 German play-with-music “Die Dreigroschenoper,” another take on “The Beggar’s Opera.”
If only the Williamstown production had the brio, imagination and brevity of the South African offering. But at nearly three hours, Peter Hunt’s production plods, never evincing the “verve and charm” that viewers of the original 1954 Off Broadway production noted (the WTF cast includes a member of the 1954 cast, William Duell, reprising his roles as Filch and the Queen’s messenger.)
A major problem is that while the Brecht/Blitzstein lyrics retain their sly glitter, the Brecht/ Blitzstein dialogue has not worn well. The first act, particularly, is torpedoed by long, dreary book scenes, none crying out for cutting more than that between would-be professional beggar Filch and Mr. Peachum (David Schramm fighting a sturdy, wordy uphill battle). Fact is, most of the socio-political satire in “The Threepenny Opera” has lost its punch, and Filch is a readily expendable character.
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Happily, the production comes to life, if fitfully, in act two, beginning with Randy Graff’s potent performance of Mrs. Peachum’s “Ballad of Dependency.” It’s followed by a Rubenesque Betty Buckley as Jenny delivering “Pirate Jenny” in easily the production’s strongest singing voice while actually projecting personality. Then on struts Karen Ziemba wearing a Louise Brooks wig to give her all to Lucy’s “Barbara Song” and be joined by Melissa Errico’s perhaps overly neat and clean Polly in an amusing back-to-back rendition of the “Jealousy Duet” between Macheath’s two warring wives.
The act two finale brings on virtually the entire large cast for a full-throated choral “How to Survive.” It’s also the choral opera parody at the end of the production that again brings it to life, with the hilarious “Hark Who Comes” followed by cries of “re-priev-ed.”
There are compensations in this “The Threepenny Opera,” but on the whole, it is ponderous. Clearly, the music and lyrics are the raison d’etre of “The Threepenny Opera” today. The book has had its day.
What’s more, in this production book and songs seem to exist on entirely separate theatrical planes with no real relationship. Conductor James Sampliner and his seven-piece onstage band should bring more brio and bite to their playing of the Weill score, particularly in the draggy act-one overture.
Of the cast, most disappointing is Jesse L. Martin as Macheath; he projects little personality. By apparently trying to be too nonchalant, he ends up a hole at the production’s heart. Nor does Hunt’s staging offer much beyond the obvious. And at the end, when he lines everyone else up at the front of the stage and leaves Macheath and Polly up at the back of the set’s top balcony, he delivers the final belittlement of Macheath. Also disappointing is Laurent Giroux as the Street Singer who delivers the show’s ubiquitous “Mack the Knife.” Giroux seems too old and his voice too deeply operatic, a fact not helped by odd amping.
John Conklin’s massive set (reminiscent of that for Broadway’s “Sweeney Todd”) is all black scaffolding balconies and stairs. His most imaginative touches are the lewd ripped caricature of Queen Victoria in front of the set at the start, complete with lipstick, mustache and swastika, and two surreal touches — a trio of blowups of single eyes in Act 2 and a pair of huge white hands in Act 3. Duell as Victoria’s reprieving messenger is pushed onto the stage atop a two-story cutout of a Napoleonic horse.