by Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.
The ThreePenny Opera
By Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
Translated by Wallace Shawn
Directed by Scott Elliott
Studio 54, Broadway and 54 Street
opened April 20, 2006
Reviewed April 22, 2006 by Margaret Croyden
The first thing one must say about this revival of the famous Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill masterpiece "The ThreePenny Opera" is that it is a pleasure to hear Kurt Weill's magnificent score. But that in itself does not save the production, which is a vulgarization of the genius of Brecht and Weill. I saw the Marc Blitzstein version many years ago with the magnificent Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weill's widow, in the role of Jenny, (an unforgettable performance), so that this coarse version misdirected by Scott Elliott and crudely translated by Wallace Shawn is very hard to swallow.
In updating the production, as if that was necessary, Mr. Elliott seemed to imagine he was directing "Cabaret" which had played in the same theater many seasons ago, also with Alan Cumming in the lead. Even the ugly costumes by Isaac Mizrahi are an indication of the director's approach. The stage is cluttered with misshapen degenerates, deformed wretches, grotesque figures dressed in Mizrahi's deliberately disgusting costumes, prancing around as if in a fashion freak show in downtown Soho. Included in the gang are transvestites, homosexuals, cross dressers, mohawk hair styles, ugly made up faces--distractions that made it impossible to follow the story let alone the meaning of the play. And the actors are no help: they do not sing well enough to deliver the words, so that Brecht's book and lyrics--the meaning of the play-- are lost. What overtakes the production is its over-production: the array of lights; red lights, flashing lights, strobe lights, high lights, even lit up red supertitles announcing scene changes as if we wouldn't get it otherwise. Add to that, a brothel scene of five couples fornicating on five beds while a flashing red light announces "the brothel" in case we miss the point!!!!.
What was Scott Elliott thinking? One thing for sure; he had no idea of what Brecht was getting at. His concern was to shock the audience so that the greatness of the work was lost by a man who could not resist Broadway glitter. Even Allen Cumming, an accomplished actor in the role of MacHeath (Mac the knife) has a problem. He is depicted as a homosexual, a bi-sexual, a pimp, a ladies'man--all things to all people--another ridiculous addition to the script. (Was this Wally Shawn's contribution?) Yet, Comming lacks sex appeal: he is overtly menacing, rather than cool and commanding, and since Comming does not have a strong charismatic personality, or a good grasp of the character, he cannot hold the play together, so his scenes and his songs are listless and tiresome. Jim Dale, in the important role of Mr. Peachum, who tries to outwit Mac, is nimble and funny and delivers a song while virtually dancing in the air: he is always a good performer.
The rest of the cast includes professionals like Cyndi Lauper in the role of Jenny ; Ana Gasteyer as Mrs. Peachum; Nellie Mckay as Polly Peachum and Brian Charles Rooney as Lucy Brown--who, cast as a transvestite, cannot resist showing his organ to the audience--one of the nastier aspects of the production. The actors may be seasoned professionals, but their misfortune was that they were in the hands of an incompetent director. Scott Elliott should go back to drama school, take a course with one of his elders who might have a better knowledge of the great Bertolt Brecht and the great Kurt Weill. Maybe then he could direct Brecht. But do forget Wally Shawn, a good writer perhaps, but surely not a translator for Brecht.
Margaret Croyden's most recent book "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000" is published by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
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