The Threepenny Opera - Difficult To Do Well

Presenting Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's "The Threepenny Opera" is a formidable challenge for at least three reasons. First, it's difficult to find relevance for today's audience and culture in material that is fast approaching 80 years of age, material that was originally penned in a different language and born in a vastly different social, political, and economic context so very far away. Second, it's an ambitious piece of work, requiring many more than a dozen actors who can both emote and belt out a song, and even do a little dancing now and again. Third, it's an acknowledged masterpiece of musical theater, so standards are extraordinarily high, audience familiarity with the material is unusually thorough, and even the most modest production is measured against the best that have gone before.

Threepenny Opera

So The Open Fist Theatre Company need not be embarrassed that this mounting of Brecht and Weill's ground-breaking musical comedy does not quite hit the mark.

Threepenny Opera

Originally produced in Berlin in 1928, Brecht's text is a heavy, satirical lesson in social criticism. He offers the audience a seedy spectrum of colorful beggars, thieves, and prostitutes who exhibit very little of the honor and morality an audience ordinarily expects in their everyday encounters with others. But where this departure from civility is intended to hit home and leave a mark, here it mostly falls short.

Threepenny Opera

Briefly, the story concerns J. J. Peachum, a London entrepreneur who is quite successful at fielding the city's largest cadre of beggars. Under threat of beatings, they pay him license fees and royalties, rent his begging costumes and props, and rely on him for training and timely tips on how best to beg. To Peachum and his team, begging is primarily a business, and their success has made him wealthy.

When Peachum's lovely daughter, Polly, falls for Mack the Knife, the ruthless and successful leader of London's underworld, Peachum hatches a plot to have Mack hanged for his crimes so his daughter can inherit her new husband's ill-gotten wealth. Songs abound, memorable characters flit through every scene, and the story grinds relentlessly toward an inevitable but unwanted ending -- until Brecht throws in a tongue-in-cheek "deus ex machina" to end all "deus ex machina's".

Since the story is hopelessly out of date and nearly everyone in the audience knows how it comes out, anyhow, a successful production of "The Threepenny Opera" must really be about the journey. The music, originally written to be jazzy and syncopated, if slightly dissonant, must engage the audience, and the lyrics and dialogue (painstakingly rendered into English from the original German), must be profferred with a light touch, enthusiastically but without bombast.

Because the play is so stylized, production values are almost optional, and many believe the play can be successfully presented with minimal sets, costumes, and lighting, provided the tone and style are right.

In this case, we have an interesting set (Bill Eigenbrodt and Meghan Rogers), enticing costumes (A. Jeffrey Schoenberg)), and some clever staging (from director and lighting designer R. Charles Otte). But the cast just doesn't put the story over. Mack the Knife should be a charming, dashing rogue who entrances the audience with his every move and utterance. Bjorn Johnson tries hard, but doesn't captivate . J.J. Peachum must be conniving and greedy, but David Castellani comes off as simply hard-edged and insensitive. Polly Peachum should begin as innocent and pure, then transform into a capable gang leader who somehow retains her mainstream morality. Josie Gundy is fetching and fun, but simply overmatched by the material.

The brightest spots occur when Jimmy Kieffer, who plays the narrator, a bartender, and a final messenger from the king, lights up the stage with his voice, his smile, and his presence. There are also several arresting solos, most notably from Rebecca Metz as Lucy and Tish Hicks as Jenny.

Granted, the material is complex, and it's possible the cast simply hasn't had enough rehearsal or hasn't done enough research and introspection to comfortably portray Brecht's characters with the requisite light touch. Many of the actors seem in a hurry to finish, and several lines are quite muffled or mumbled. The few steps of dancing (Kitty McNamee's choreography) come off as clunky and ungraceful. The music (directed by Dean Mora, who was absent for this performance) and the voices sound shrill much more often than they do sweet -- probably because of the acoustics inherent in this old venue, but a shame for whatever reason, as many of the cast members seem able to trill quite nicely. They just can't overcome the obstacles preventing this production from soaring.

Generally, this production needs more fine tuning to wring from the material the fire, fun, and fury Brecht and Weill originally wrought into it. As of the final preview performance, the company do not seem to be having much fun, and as a result, the audience isn't, either.

The Threepenny Opera
Written by Bertolt Brecht
Music by Kurt Weill
At The Open Fist Theatre Company
1625 North La Brea Avenue
Gala Opening April 30
Runs through June 12, 2005
Fridays & Saturdays @ 8pm; Sundays @ 7pm.
Opening Night Gala, April 30: $25
Tickets: $20
Reservations: 323.882.6912 or online at

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