Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Threepenny Opera now in Sacramento

The Threepenny Opera: a stunning classic at California Stage

Those of us who’ve kicked around for awhile can remember the sandpaper voice of Louis Armstrong emanating from a radio, singing about Mack the Knife, Lotte Lenya, Jenny Diver, Suky Tawdry and Lucy Brown. At the time I couldn’t help wondering who these people were. If you had the good fortune to see the classic “Threepenny Opera,” now at California Stage, you should recognize most of those names.

They refer to characters portrayed or mentioned in what was a radical new musical that made its debut in Germany in 1928, with music by Kurt Weill, book and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht. It was radical not only in form but in content, its Marxist leanings caught in a tag line describing the story as “what happens when the banks get richer and the poor get poorer.” After a rocky start the show caught on, only to be outlawed when the Nazis took over. Weill and Brecht left Germany and brought the powerful drama to the rest of the world.

The focal character is Macheath, the knife-wielding criminal leader, played by veteran actor Michael RJ Campbell, who reveals a powerful singing voice that adds to his dramatic prowess. The action begins with a street singer (Gregory Dorado), who rolls back what looks like an extended shower curtain and sings the famous “Ballad of Mack the Knife.” Meanwhile we see a large group of figures behind him in frozen postures like a still life and, like him, with painted black rings around their eyes.

We get a sample of the underworld culture when J.J. Peacham (Michael Sokol), with his wife Celia (Angelina Réaux, who also directs the show), tyrannizes a would-be beggar (Filch, also played by Dorado) by taking his clothes in exchange for rags. Peacham’s counterpart, the king of criminals, is Macheath, who woos and wins Miss Polly (Kelly Daniells), the Peachams’ buxom daughter, and begins a feud with her parents.

Based loosely on John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera” of 1728, “The Threepenny Opera” is set in London, though updated to 1837, when Queen Victoria took the throne. In fact Mack’s scheduled execution coincides with her coronation.

The play, which continues through an exhausting three acts, is more concerned with love and sex than with crime, greed and politics. As matters progress we discover that Mack has an appetite for women, mainly prostitutes. Polly’s chief competitors include Jenny Diver, played by the exquisite Jessica Goldman, whose golden voice is especially revealed in “Solomon Song” (introduction to Act III, Scene 2). The role, incidentally, was written for Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weill’s wife.

Polly’s main competition, though, comes from a wife Mack married earlier, Lucy Brown (Whitney-Claire Roeder). She’s the daughter of Tiger Brown (Jeffrey Lloyd Heatherly), chief of police, and Mack’s protector. There’s a delightful scene where Lucy tries to poison Polly’s tea, and the two switch teacups several times.

High drama, though, comes in Act III, where Mack’s luck runs out and he can’t afford a bribe to keep him from being hanged….But we don’t want to spoil the ending.

The actors are supported by a five-piece band, conducted by Christopher Cook. The musicianship is solid, except that the volume sometimes tends to drown out what the actors are saying. Director Réaux also designed a functional set, with doors and windows that reveal actors passing behind them. She adds a comic touch by using a lone wired garden gate to signify a prison cell.

“The Threepenny Opera” continues through March 15 at California Stage, on R Street at the corner of 25th Street in Sacramento. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 general; $15 students, seniors and actors. For reservations, tickets or further information, call California Stage at 916-451-5822. Tickets are also available online at www.seeaplay.com. California Stage is fully accessible.

Photos: 1. Michael RJ Campbell as Mack the Knife
Courtesy of California Stage

2. Mack in prison

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