“What is robbing a bank compared with founding a bank?” asks Bertolt Brecht in the guise of his philosophical crime boss Macheath at the finale of his 1928 satirical masterpiece The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper). Cynical and wickedly funny, it’s an opus that never loses its relevance; but the aftermath of the bank failures of recent years presents an especially apt opportunity to rediscover this wonderful work in which rich and poor, cop and criminal are portrayed as equally opportunistic and corrupt. A new CenterStage production of The Threepenny Opera, directed by Laurie Sepe Marder, opened last weekend at the Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck and will run Friday and Saturday evening and Sunday matinees through September 23.
Brecht wrote the book and lyrics and Kurt Weill the cabaret-style music for The Threepenny Opera, which is based on an English work written in 1728 by John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera. By the time Brecht and Weill got run out of Germany by the Nazis five years after its first production, Die Dreigroschenoper had been performed more than 10,000 times and translated into 18 languages. Two songs from its score, “The Ballad of Mack the Knife (a/k/a Mackie Messer)” and “Pirate Jenny,” went on to become jazz/pop standards.
If, like this correspondent, your highwater mark for productions of The Threepenny Opera is the scathing 1976 New York Shakespeare Festival version directed by Richard Foreman and starring the utterly brilliant Raúl Juliá, you should be aware that the current Rhinebeck production does not use the same unflinchingly hard-edged translation by Ralph Manheim and John Willett. Instead, it opts for the “softer” and better-known Marc Blitzstein translation, which makes the lyrics somewhat more pleasing to the ear while sacrificing a good deal of Brecht’s socialist social commentary (not to mention his blatant sexual references). Nonetheless, the parallels to modern-day political and economic squabbles are there to be found by those who seek them, as pertinent as ever they were during Hitler’s rise to power.
Set in early-19th-century London, on the eve of Queen Victoria’s coronation, The Threepenny Opera chronicles the betrayal and redemption of the ruthless-but-charming master criminal Macheath amidst a crew of petty thieves, beggars and prostitutes and the easily bribable police who alternately thwart and abet them. For begging purposes, London is divided up into districts, and to stake out your territory in one of them, you need to get a license from the powerful “Beggars’ Friend,” Mr. Peachum, ably played and sung in the Rhinebeck production by Thomas Vernier. All Hell breaks loose in the Peachum household when his headstrong daughter Polly marries Macheath (Paul Carter), and Mrs. Peachum (Cat Barney) sets her mind to turn the crime boss over to the police. At first her plans are frustrated because Tiger Brown (Amos Newcombe), the police commissioner, is not only solidly on the take, but also an old war buddy of Macheath’s; their bloodthirsty “Cannon Song” (a/k/a the “Army Song”) is one of the most rousing numbers in the show.
Mrs. Peachum gets better results by bribing Jenny Diver, a prostitute who was once Macheath’s live-in paramour (there’s another wife – the feisty Lucy Brown, played with vindictive glee by Molly Parker-Myers – in the mix as well). Jenny’s showstopper number, “Pirate Jenny,” was the high point of the production the night that I saw it: Lisa Lynds’ big voice and saucy delivery held their own with any rendition that I’ve ever heard (and that’s saying something, as it has been recorded by Judy Collins, Nina Simone and Maddy Prior, among other great singers). The song gave me goosebumps, just as it’s supposed to.
The odd thing, though, is that “Pirate Jenny” is supposed to be sung as entertainment during the wedding of Polly and Macheath. For some inexplicable reason, this production bumps it to the second act, and during the wedding scene has Polly herself sing a song from an entirely different show – with music by Kurt Weill, but lyrics by Ira Gershwin: “The Saga of Jenny” (a/k/a “The Ballad of Jenny” or “Jenny Made Her Mind Up”) from Lady in the Dark. Becca Cotton as Polly sings it well, but if you know the work, you’ll be scratching your head wondering how that got in there and how it relates to Jenny Diver, considering that its protagonist is deceased.
Another performer worthy of special mention is Zack Marshall, best-known locally as a dancer in the Vanaver Caravan troupe, as the Street Singer. If he can carry off “The Ballad of Mack the Knife” with such insouciant swagger at the tender age of 15, Marshall has got quite a career in musicals ahead of him. He may even make an outstanding Macheath someday.
Other cast members include Mark Grunblatt, Fred Fishberg, Jim Canning, David Weinberg, Michael Prezioso, Eva Grunblatt, Allison Fuqua, Alisa Kwitney, Laura Bolukbasi, Marta Fuerst, Erin Farrell, Thomas Mayhar, Susan Geiss, Morgan McKinley and Amanda Cowen. Musical direction is by Paul and JoAnne Schubert, set and lighting design by Andy Weintraub and stage management by Jhanae Bonnick.
Centerstage’s production of the Marc Blitzstein translation of Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, directed by Laurie Sepe Marder, will be performed at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 3 p.m. on Sundays at the Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck, 661 Route 308, on September 14, 15, 16, 21, 22 and 23. Tickets cost $26 for adults and $24 for seniors and may be ordered online at www.vendini.com/ticket-software.html?e=0507199800bfd9ad1136b585cce1b02f&t=tix. Call the box office at (845) 876-3080 or visit https://centerforperformingarts.org for more information.