There’s a real feeling of 1928 Berlin to the new production of “The Threepenny Opera” that Soulpepper Theater has mounted as the first musical in the Toronto classical repertory company’s nine-year history. That sense of time and place ultimately helps carry this well-acted but erratically sung production to victory.
Soulpepper has largely relied on its company members, bringing in only one prominent outsider, Canadian cabaret star Patricia O’Callaghan. She plays Polly Peachum with the expected vocal grace plus a surprising amount of acting skill for one with so little theater experience.
Other members of the company, including William Webster (Peachum), Nancy Palk (Mrs. Peachum) and Stuart Hughes (Tiger Brown), contribute boldly drawn characterizations, but when they open their mouths to sing, their confidence diminishes.
At the head of the cast as Macheath is Soulpepper artistic director Albert Schultz, and his is the major triumph of the evening. Schultz sees Macheath as a self-satisfied, preening peacock, confident of his invincibility. It’s not unlike the portrait of Conrad Black he delivered on a recent CTV telepic called “Shades of Black,” but it makes perfect sense.
Schultz has a big, untrained voice, but he knows how to put a number over with force and style. His solo turns in act two run the gamut from egomaniacal to desperate, and they’re superb.
Another different but wonderful perf comes from Jamaican-born performance artist d’bi.young.anitafrika as the Ballad Singer. Director Tim Albery sees her as a kind of traveling butcher, moving through the show chopping up random pieces of meat and pouring a bucket of blood down a drain at the evening’s end. With her demonic grin and ironic line-readings, the characterization lingers in the memory.
Not all the casting is equally felicitous. Sarah Wilson has neither the age, the voice nor the emotional range to play Jenny, which leaves a large gap in the dramatic structure of the piece. And too many of the gang members and whores have been cast with actors too young and callow to match the depth of what they’re saying.
Albery has chosen to use the translation Robert MacDonald prepared for the Glasgow Citizens’ Theater; although the dialogue has a nice tang and an appropriate political bite, the lyrics often scan and sing awkwardly.
The work is split into two acts instead of the usual three, which makes for a shorter evening, but leaves the structure oddly unbalanced. Otherwise, Albery’s staging is inventive without being obtrusive and keeps things moving smoothly.
Paul Sportelli capably leads a feisty six-piece band with the tinny dissonance Weill’s score demands, but his vocalists often lack the power the material needs.
Lorenzo Savoini’s set largely makes use of the exposed brick of Soulpepper’s theater with few additions, but his costumes have a nice period sense and ironic style. Bonnie Beecher’s lighting does a clever job of making everything look as though George Grosz had painted it.
In the end, this “Threepenny Opera” avoids gimmickry and shuns sensationalism to deliver the work that Brecht and Weill intended. While it has its flaws, the integrity of its intent is admirable.