A “Threepenny” production to take on the road

MALIBU, Calif. – Pepperdine University’s Theatre Department has just presented a short four-performance run of the classic Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht Threepenny Opera, and it was a knockout! They should take it on the road.

Ordinarily professional reviewers don’t subject student productions to their withering criticism. Lowered expectations of student work have to be taken into consideration, and critics in the big city usually have plenty of other shows to check out. Plus which, the kids may not have developed thick enough skins as performers, and we wouldn’t want to discourage them at such an early age from what might become their career. So we leave such commentary to the college press, where critics too are honing their skills, or perhaps to smaller community newspapers.

I wanted to see this production, though, because unlike most announcements for Threepenny Opera (3PO), this one carried the specific detail that Pepperdine was staging the Marc Blitzstein adaptation from the early 1950s that made this 1928 work come alive again, in English, for new audiences around the world. If you know the song “Mack the Knife” – and everyone does – you know it from the hundreds of “song stylings” that immediately started bursting forth to capture a segment of its popularity. Later translations have never quite captured the public imagination as Blitzstein’s did.

The original 3PO, or Die Dreigroschenoper, was likewise a hit in Germany and on the continent. It met the fate of all “degenerate” work under the Nazis, of course, not only because of Kurt Weill’s Jewishness, but because of the openly Marxist understanding of society that pours out of every verse in the opera. And because Weill used popular idioms and cabaret-style “singing actors” on his stage, accompanied by a small band that included guitar and banjo.

3PO starred the composer’s wife Lotte Lenya, who also appeared in a contemporary film of the show. After World War II, with Weill safely settled in the world of the American musical theatre (Lady in the Dark, Street Scene, One Touch of Venus, Lost in the Stars and more),

Lenya wasn’t so busy professionally: Her speak-singing style and her strong German accent kept her away from her art. But Blitzstein cast her in his adaptation, and that show played at New York City’s intrepid little Theater de Lys on Christopher Street for an incredible seven years. Many important theatrical careers were launched in 3PO roles over that time. Lenya herself moved on to become a unique personality in theater and film, and recorded most of Weill’s great songs for a global public that had never known her pre-war career.

And now back to Malibu

Anyway, back to Malibu…. The inspiration to stage Blitzstein’s 3PO seems to have come from director Bradley Griffin, who had served as music director and keyboardist in a college production some twenty-odd years ago. Now a regular presence at Pepperdine as associate professor of theatre, he has chosen to expose his young charges to this radical work. In a program note he explains:

“It may be hard to appreciate the groundbreaking quality of The Threepenny Opera today because we have become accustomed to satiric musicals that critique our society. Keep in mind, however, that politically-charged musicals like Kander and Ebb’s Chicago, Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, or Hollmann and Kotis’ more recent social satire Urinetown would not have been possible without Brecht and Weill. Whether viewed as an historical play, as a case study of the modern musical, or as a disturbing cautionary tale, Threepenny continues to have much to teach us.”

As theatergoers will recall, the action takes place in London in 1837, before and during Queen Victoria’s coronation. What we see unfold are the closely interlocking relationships between crime, both petty (like pickpocketing) and major (like murder), religion, prostitution, law enforcement, the military, and the Crown. The plot focuses on the criminals and beggars at society’s lowest level, but their infractions are but very small potatoes compared to the high crimes committed by the rich. As Brecht says, “What is the crime of robbing a bank compared to the crime of founding a bank?” – a thought whose relevance only seems to increase with each new revelation from the Panama Papers!

The opera is peppered with a succession of memorable musical numbers, starting with the famous “Mack the Knife” (which conservatives fecklessly tried to ban in the 1950s as an affront to morality). Mr. Peachum (Jalon Matthews), who with his Mrs. (Audrey McKee) runs a business that sends London’s beggars out to the streets, offers a cynical capitalist moral in his “Morning Anthem” addressed to his charges that pretty much sums up the competitive ethos of the system:

Wake up, all you godless, wake up!
Come, open your sinful blue eyes.
With greed runneth over your cup,
So start the day’s blessings and lies.

Sell him out, your own brother, you lout!
And chuck your poor mother about!
The good Lord above you is watching,
And yelling “Get up and get out!”

Note the indivisible mixture of predatory capitalism with religious references which infuses 3PO from beginning to end, for what is religion but the fundamental belief system that supports the dominant economic model of the day? (In America we preach the “prosperity gospel” in a construction of Christianity that few believers outside our borders would recognize as even a faintly legitimate interpretation of the message of Jesus.)

The credits

The staging (Rick Aglietti) is simultaneously spectacular and utilitarian: connectable moving scaffolds, some as high as three stories, with a black-clad crew that look like busy ants at the social ground level to move the walls and furniture. The stage is open to the edges of the theatre, and we see off to the sides and back all the props and costumes, the performers changing clothes and waiting for their entrances, and an expert eight-person orchestra (students, I presume) led by Joel Rieke. Modern technology has amplified Weill’s score somewhat in that Rieke’s keyboard can be made to sound like a harmonium for the “church anthem” type of songs, and he also has his banjoist/guitar player use a sliding Hawaiian guitar at one point.

The costuming (Melanie Watnick) combines gutter Gothic frocks (a beggar’s opera doesn’t have too many flashy outfits beyond Mack’s harem of ladies) with the occasional bit of modernity, such as the headphones Mack’s lover Lucy uses (I didn’t quite get that). The lighting by Ben Pilat contributes tremendously; he creates a realistic London fog and employs expressionistic techniques of stark contrast used by German director Erwin Piscator in the Weimar theater years and subsequently adopted in New York by Orson Welles in his Mercury Theatre in the 1930s.

The cast is almost all uniformly excellent, with one caveat that is really not their fault but the director’s: They use a British street accent that is overly broad in many cases for us to understand in a show where the words are so all-important. Accent combined with exaggerated over-theatricality obscured a significant portion of Mrs. Peachum’s lines.

Standouts in the cast include first and foremost Mathew San Jose as Macheath (Mack), whose figure recalled that of Raul Julia who played this character in the 1989 film adaptation. San Jose has a honeyed, creamy, legato voice that perfectly snags Macheath’s suaveté, helping to explain why this fine-looking figure could be viewed as such an attractive lover. One could only think, for a modern comparison, of the way narcotraficantes have been lifted up and romanticized in popular culture.

Mack’s old war time buddy Tiger Brown (Chris Bozzini), now a London police commissioner, dating back to their military service in India – Brecht has certainly not forgotten about the Empire! – has a sprightliness and insouciance that recall Sacha Baron Cohen. Their famous number together, the “Army Song,” in few words clinches the spirit of imperialism: “And if the population should greet us with indignation,/ We chop ’em to bits., because we like our hamburgers raw.”

Polly Peachum (Sarah Jessica Roach), who “marries” Mack in a mock ceremony that savages the bourgeois institution of marriage, is played engagingly. It is she who sings the famous “Pirate Jenny” song that made Lenya famous, and she has mastered it with the febrile movements of a wharf cat. Her counterpart Lucy Brown (Caroline Pitts), Mack’s old and best love, the police commish’s daughter, is also very good. But again that caveat: Hard enough as it often was to get all the words through that heavy accent, their duet was impossible, and too fast. I also kept thinking, maybe the amplification didn’t help either. Was the reverb a contributory factor in the muddiness of the lyrics? Supertitles would have been good.

Jalon Matthews as the “preacher” Peachum was perfect, the very model of a major religious conniver cum business fraudster. The ensemble of beggars, criminals, cops and prostitutes all sang and moved with endearing charm, no one forgetting how society created such classes in the first place.

In a student production it’s hard to single out any terrific up-and-coming stars (though I would say, keep an eye out for when that sexy Mackie next comes to town). But the production itself is pure genius. A university puts on a show like this mostly for the benefit of its students, and the audience comprised fellow students (reassuring to see young people enjoying this material in the 1-percent age we live in now), perhaps a few Malibu locals, and some parents and family members. But a beautifully conceived show like this, with heightened social consciousness, should really have a life after Malibu.

Photo: The Peachum family (L-R) Mrs. (Audrey McKee), Mr. (Jalon Matthews), Polly (Sarah Jessica Roach).  |  Bradley Griffin


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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