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The Threepenny Opera
by Rob Kendt

Ouch! Broadway's new Threepenny Opera hurts—the eyes, the brain, and, at close to three hours, the ass. It's not so hard on the ears, as music director Kevin Stites makes Kurt Weill's prickly neo-classical score glitter and glare. But director Scott Elliott, using a showily crude and oddly spliced new translation by playwright Wallace Shawn, has turned Bertolt Brecht's 1928 play, about petit-bourgeois capitalists whose trades happen to be murder, fraud, and prostitution, into a dull hodgepodge of unfunny comedy sketches, and he's dressed it in the
©2006 Joan Marcus
Alan Cumming & Cyndi Lauper
in The Threepenny Opera
semi-contemporary drag of Isaac Mizrahi's pointedly ugly costumes. There's supposed to be shock value, I guess, in refashioning the lead gangster, Macheath (Alan Cumming), into a bisexual hustler and making over his gang as androgynous droogs out of Purple Rain or Rocky Horror. But the real shock is how boring and hollow the effort seems.

Really, it shouldn't be so hard to make Brechtian detachment work on Broadway. Many of the late German playwright's infamous "distancing" techniques, in which seams are exposed and actors present as well as inhabit their characters, are now the stuff of mainstream stagecraft, from Rent to Chicago. And playwrights like Tony Kushner, David Hare, and, yes, even Wally Shawn on a good day owe a large debt to Brecht's boldness in form and content. But this Threepenny isn't just delivered with neon-sign quotation marks, as actors dress and put on make-up onstage and opera supertitles publish the names of scenes and songs; Elliott's production is nothing but a series of quotation marks—presentation ideas minus any compelling notion of what's being presented, how the ideas might fit together or spark some illuminating friction from their contrast.

The way the show handles its one chart-topping hit, the opening number about the notorious cutthroat Mac the Knife, inspires some hope: The first few verses are delivered a cappella by Cyndi Lauper, whose crackling rasp of a voice, not to mention her heavy eyeshadow, seem a perfect fit for the world-weary Brecht/Weill milieu. After trading off subsequent verses, the number reaches a chilling anti-climax with a silent, dispirited kick line. Later full-cast chorales, delivered stock-still from platforms in Jason Lyons' oven-baking lights, pack some of the intended punch.

Story continues below

Little else here does. As the vaunted villain himself, Cumming sports a Mohawk, a studded, chest-baring jumpsuit and a Scottish brogue as thick as haggis. Forget that this punkish pimp is not at all the "thoroughly staid," businesslike criminal Brecht prescribed in his production notes; the role can be, and most often is, played as a dashing rake. But Cumming's Macheath, who seems less dashing than ashen, comes off like a compendium of musty collegiate notions of nose-thumbing provocation, from the sexual to the sartorial. He has precisely one scene and song in which he springs to life: Confined to jail, he riffs impishly wit
©2006 Joan Marcus
Jim Dale, Ana Gasteyer, Alan Cumming,
Nellie McKay & Cyndi Lauper in
The Threepenny Opera
h the guard and sings "Song of the Happy Life," which boasts some of Shawn's more felicitous new lyrics ("Bring home some bread, cried Socrates' wife/You must have comfort for the happy life"). Later, in orange prison togs, Cumming tries to make us feel Macheath's anguish at the world's injustices, but it's too little too late.

Nobody onstage seems to belong in the same play, decade or continent. We may savor a few music-hall moments with Jim Dale's Monty Python-esque Peachum, even if Shawn has unwisely excised most of the material that explains Peachum's exploitative begging/extortion racket. And we may luxuriate in Lauper's drunken-ostrich rendition of "Solomon Song." There's less pleasure to be had from Ana Gasteyer, who plays Mrs. Peachum as a brittle Long Island matron and belts her songs loudly and humorlessly, or from Brian Charles Rooney's tacky countertenor take on Lucy Brown. Ditto the motley cast of would-be misfits and miscreants, who are given precious little to wear by Mizrahi and still less to do by choreographer Aszure Barton.

Warbling and wobbling touchingly atop this shipwreck is Nellie McKay, who plays the twisted ingénue Polly with an otherworldly abandon that might have been star-making in a better vehicle. As it is, McKay's oddball histrionics just happen to be the most interesting thing about this impoverished Threepenny.

The Threepenny Opera
By Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
In a New Translation by Wallace Shawn
At Studio 54

Print This Story / Send the Story to a Friend / 4/20/2006 5:33:00 PM


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