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Bertolt Brecht's and Kurt Weill's "Threepenny Opera"

Jean Cocteau Repertory, 330 Bowery at Bond St.
June 18-Aug. 14, Wed. at 7:00 pm, Thurs.-Sat. at 8:00 pm; Sat.-Sun. at 3:00 pm, $45.
(212) 677-0060 or at www.jeancocteaurep.org
Reviewed by Robert Hicks July 3, 2004.

For this writer, the 1958 recording of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's "Die Dreigroshenoper," supervised by Weill's widow Lotte Lenya and sung in German, shall forever remain the definitive version of this 20th century classic.

That recording, reissued on Columbia Records in 1974, was my introduction to Weill and Brecht and it led to my lifelong fascination with political satire, German literature and the darkly tragic modern world depicted by Weill and Brecht.

Jean Cocteau Repertory's current return engagement of its successful production of "The Threepenny Opera" in an English adaptation by Marc Blitzstein is a wonderful reminder of the power of Weill and Brecht.

Macheath (Mack the Knife), here played by Chad A. Suitts, sings his opening chronicle of his criminal life in London, "The Ballad of Mack the Knife," with clarity, but he lacks the treacherous power of Eric Schellow's Macheath. He rebounds marvelously toward play's end, though, with his incisive effort on "Ballad In Which Macheath Asks Everyone For Forgiveness." Mr. J. J. Peachum's plaintive concerns about his reign over London's beggars and about his daughter's sensual interests in Macheath are skillfully conveyed by Angus Hepburn. Mrs. Peachum (Marlene May) is far less effective in capturing the harsh, sexual vigor of Brecht's cadences, especially in her singable version of "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency."

(For some unknown reason, Blitzstein's version drops the word sexual in the line "That's sexual dependency" and it loses the reference to whoredom - "Das ist die sexuelle Horigkeit" is the German.)

Polly Peachum (Stephanie Lynge) is one of the highlights of this production. She does lack the sensuality of Johanna V. Koczian's Polly, but her acting subtly conveys the changes in Polly's character. Her singing, while too operatic at times, does capture the cadences of the German. Lucy Brown (Natalie Ballesteros) is mesmerizing in her duet with Polly and she is forceful, though somewhat too operatic, in her rendering of "Fight About the Property." Jenny (Lorinda Lisitza) is no Lotte Lenya, but she is appropriately moralistic and ironic in her delivery of "Solomon's Song."

(As the Streetsinger in this context, she says, "The women have betrayed Macheath." In the German, the text reads, "Die Huren haben Macheath verraten." Or "The whores have betrayed Macheath." Here and elsewhere, Blitzstein's version sanitizes the decadent language of Brecht.)

Jenny best conveys Brecht's satire and decadence in this production. The whole cast is powerful in the ensemble choruses. For the most part, this production fails to convey Weill and Brecht's satire of operatic traditions. It aims for singable vocal qualities and lacks the hard, bitter harshness of the original German.

Special recognition should go to producing artistic director David Fuller's vision of Brecht and Weill. Under his able eye, Roman Taterowicz's scenic design conveys the sordid decadence of London. Joanne Haas's costume design effectively communicates the division between the beggars, thieves and prostitutes and the criminal career success of Mr. Peachum and Macheath. Judith Jarosz's choreography keeps the characters moving dramatically through the multi-layered, yet simple set design. Giles Hoyaga's lighting design superbly fills the small stage with eerie, menacing contrasts in shadow, darkness and light. Charles Berigan's music direction, using only solo piano, is wonderfully sparse, suggestive and expressive. Fuller uses the small stage, the theater's exits and aisles remarkably well to give immediacy to this decadent society in Weill and Brecht's political satire. I thoroughly enjoyed this top-notch production of "The Threepenny Opera."[Hicks]

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