Robert Lepage has created a kind of Theater of Appropriation with his own borrowed, playful take on John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera,” receiving its U.S. preem at Montclair State U.’s new presenting house prior to additional college and fest gigs.
The work opens with a scruffy street performer, making dazzling percussive sounds with found objects, before being discovered by music industry honchos. Lepage follows this busker’s lead by creating a work that also makes clever art on the run, embracing a wide range of musical sources to tell his shaggy-dog story of sex, song and avarice.
The busy Canadian director-auteur (now on a career sizzle with Cirque du Soleil production “Ka” in Las Vegas) at first tried to create his own take on “Threepenny Opera.” But licensing problems caused him to look instead to the original 18th-century source that inspired that Brecht-Weill work.
For its Canadian preem last year, Lepage turned to his cast for material to create a wild mix of musical styles that make this sung-through show seem like an iPod on shuffle: zydeco, blues, folk, country, hip-hop, punk, klezmer, opera, rock — even yodeling gets its “American Idol” moment.
Lepage transforms Macheath into a lead singer and bass player for a ska group called the Highwaymen, trying to make a comeback. Macheath is still the iconic randy character, playing fast and loose with young Polly Peachum (here an underage DJ scratcher), ex-lover Jenny and luscious Lucy. But he is also dogged by shifty agents and lawyers eager to get their hands on the rights to his music catalog.
As the narrative jumps from London to New York City, Las Vegas, New Orleans and finally Texas, so does the music. Sometimes the quick shifts are exhilarating and fun, such as a Rat Pack number at the casinos sung by the conniving fathers and a breathtaking number performed by an actress who seems to be channeling Yma Sumac and Carmen Miranda. Other times the musical gumbo conceit wears thin, riffing without a point. On too many occasions the material is simply not good enough, making it one long road trip.
The switching of one sordid world (Gay’s criminal rogues) for another (Lepage’s singers, groupies and industry execs) never pays off beyond the old music-biz cliches of corruption, lust and betrayal.
Perfs, too, vary depending on thesps’ musical expertise, with Claire Gignac, Julie Fainer, Veronika Makdissi-Warren, Frederike Bedard and percussionist Frederic Lebrasseur coming across best. Other perfs are deliberately less than musically accomplished, but whatever appeal is intended is not in evidence. As Macheath, Marco Poulin works hard and has his moments, but he fails to deliver the charisma needed to make auds care about the famous anti-hero.
It wouldn’t be a Lepage show without playful, technically inspired stagecraft; here it’s in the form of a floating plasma TV screen that follows the action like a kind of big brother stage manager, supplying set information, atmosphere (a raging fireplace for one romantic interlude) and lyrics for the songs, which are terrible.
Though not as technically transformative and thematically focused as the mesmerizing “The Far Side of the Moon,” now playing at ART in Cambridge, Mass., “The Busker’s Opera” is a looser, almost improv experience, a kind of theatrical karaoke. While it has entertainment value, it has its limits as well.