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Signature Theatre The Threepenny Opera

By • May 2nd, 2014 • Category: Reviews
The Threepenny Opera
Signature Theatre: (Info) (Web)
Signature Theatre, Arlington, VA
Through June 1st
2:30 with intermission
$29-$93 (Plus Fees)
Reviewed April 27th, 2014

In the polished, strongly sung production of The Threepenny Opera at Signature, there are still stings of social critique from Brecht and Weill that make their marks in the venom-laden book and score.

Signature’s marketing material describes The Threepenny Opera as ,” a satirical commentary on politics, poverty, injustice and corruption at all levels of society. The haves clash with the have-nots while Macheath, the ultimate sneering anti-hero, perches in the middle of the storm.”

With that as a preface, The Threepenny Opera directed by Gardiner (Tender Napalm, Dreamgirls, Really Really) is a work of musical theater artistry. The adaption Gardiner uses is the 1994 work of Robert David MacDonald (book) and Jeremy Sams (lyrics). They moved the originally conceived Brecht and Weill proceedings from its Queen Victoria moorings, to a “not-too-distant future” Great Britain. Queen Elizabeth II has passed away and her grandson, Prince William, is to be crowned King. MacDonald and Sams also added in contemporary cultural references in both book and lyrics.

Threepenny begins with a terrific, gritty brass and reed-centric eight-piece jazz band under the wonderful musical direction of Gabriel Mangiante. The overture brings us into the fray. A dark-haired woman slowly steps into view: dead center. Lights, little by little, come up on her. We are introduced to a seedy world by a street-walker named Jenny (a raw, hooded-eyes, hypnotic Natascia Diaz). She is clearly street-wise, but lost, almost dead in the eyes, as she ever so slowly, enunciates each word, each syllable of the lyrics “The Flick Knife Song” about the crook, rapist, sadist and quick with a knife, Macheath (Mack the Knife).

I simply cannot image being Diaz taking this iconic song on. Jeez, think about the many versions of this song, and the number of artists who have sung it. Diaz had to sweep them away to get the show up and running. She took the audience by its collective neck with one hand to bring them into the rough world of Threepenny Opera. Diaz did that and more. With each word and syllable, her diction pure, her darkly tinged voice drew the audience into her world. She effectively grounded Threepenny Opera.

Then, she dropped her grip and the show went on. Throughout the show, Diaz in her singing and appearances, projects pain and being battered with an “I will get by attitude.” She is not so emotionally broken that she can’t or won’t find ways to strike back at those who did her ill.

We next come to meet the smooth, slick charm of Bobby Smith in his role of Jonathan Peachum, the boss of London’s beggars. A man of self-interest, he takes a cut of each beggar’s take. He is one of Macheath’s adversaries.

A stronger, more vigorous antagonist of Macheath is Mrs. Peachum. Donna Migliaccio gives a delightfully spirited, fare-thee-well to the evils of Mrs. Peachum. With a raspy, well-lived life voice, Migliaccio gives off a special dislike for Macheath. After all he has taken her daughter Polly in marriage. But, even deeper, is Mrs. Peachum’s disdain for marriage in general as she claws through “The Ballad of Sexual Imperative” with its lyrics suggesting marriage as just another form of prostitution.

Soon enough, Macheath appears in the guise of a raffish, supposedly good with a blade, Mitchell Jarvis. Even with inked arms, he did give off shivers in his initial entrance and time with his good-old boy cronies. He came alive later when paired with the women characters such as Polly or Jenny. His brings some comic relief to the whole affair at the top of Act III with his solo “The Ballad of Easy Life.”

The bright-eyed, full-of-life Erin Driscoll is the Peachum’s daughter, Polly. She appears first as an innocent kitten. With a blond, curly bob and her fair-skin, she is set visually against the dark-haired, olive-skinned Diaz as feminine engines of the production. As the play progresses, she reveals her own greedy, tough-minded self, including desires for the right kind of rougher man to bring her fulfillment. When she sings “Pirate Jenny,” first as a tease than as an authentic being, she is a woman truly seeking revenge on those higher up in the economic food chain.

Rick Hammerly is cast as Lucy Brown, another of Macheath’s lovers; a cute touch; just this side of campy. It is an enjoyable moment to watch as Hammerly and Driscoll argue through song and body language over the love of Macheath in “Jealousy Duet” when both show up in the jail where he is locked up. John Leslie Wolfe as Jackie “Tiger” Brown a police inspector on the take gives off a believable corrupted characterization with an air of authority.

The graffiti-strewn scenic design by Misha Kachman at the MAX is a two level affair. The band is on the top level along with characters who sometimes look down upon the main floor with its mixing bowl of action. A moving electronic stock market ticker and neon signage festooned the set. The electronic ticker also crawls with phrases such as “the greatest human force is human selfishness” and “wolves devour sheep.” Rocco DiSanti is credited with the video design. One cunning, contemporary touch is the use of smartphones to take pictures.

Frank Labovitz’s costumes let us know who is who quite readily. There is a thuggish or hip-hop look for some, suits for the rich folk and an assortment of styles. Polly has a saucy outfit and the prostitutes the usual black lingerie.

As The Threepenny Opera ends, loose ends tied up and all is again right with the world, the show closes with a plea for generosity to the less fortunate and the homeless; “For life today is cold and grey and ghastly, And living it is punishment enough.” Strong sentiments indeed, but delivered and missed. Perhaps it is the zeitgeist or the constant 24/7 media cycle of the social media-centric world outside the MAX.

Three Penny is a work of artistic excellence; accessible to a wide-ranging audience. As for raising outrage at economic inequality or the trafficking of women into prostitution; those are much different questions. Are there too many decades since the 1928 Berlin world of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill and their particular type of sharp critique of Capitalism? I wonder what Thomas Piketty author of the current best-seller, “Capital in the Twenty-first Century” might ponder?

Reviewer’s Note: “Mack the Knife” has been recorded as a jazz and pop standard by oodles of performers such as Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darrin, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra to name a few. For your reviewer, I was imprinted with Lotta Lenya who came into my world through my parents, as well as Marianne Faithfull and one who made a very early impression, the late German comedian and actor Wolfgang Neuss used by Ernie Kovacs on his ground-breaking comedy television show from about 1960.

Cast

  • Macheath (Mack the Knife): Mitchell Jarvis
  • Jenny: Natascia Diaz
  • Mr. Peachum: Bobby Smith
  • Mrs. Peachum: Donna Migliaccio
  • Polly Peachum: Erin Driscoll
  • Tiger Brown: John Leslie Wolfe
  • Lucy Brown: Rick Hammerly
  • Matt of the Mint: Paul Scanlan
  • Crook-Finger Jake: Sean Fri
  • Chainsaw Bob: Ryan Sellers
  • Fitch/Weeping Willow Walter: Aaron Bliden
  • Smith/Reverend Kimball : Thomas Adrian Simpson
  • Jimmy/Nelly: Jessica Thorne
  • Betty: Jamie Eacker
  • Vixen: Katherine Renee Turner
  • Dance Captain: Jamie Eacker

Musicians

  • Conductor/Keyboard: Gabriel Mangiante and Jacob Kidder
  • Reed 1: Ben Bokor
  • Reed 2: Ed Walters
  • Trumpet 1: Chris Walker
  • Trumpet 2: Brent Madsen
  • Trombone: Adam McColley
  • Guitar: Gerry Kunkel
  • Percussion: Joe McCarthy

Artistic and Design Team

  • Books & Lyrics by Bertolt Brecht
  • Music by Kurt Weill
  • English translation of dialog by Robert David MacDonald
  • English translation of lyrics by Jeremy Sams
  • Directed and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner
  • Musical Direction by Gabriel Mangiante
  • Dialect Direction by Lynn Watson
  • Scenic Design by Misha Kachman
  • Costume Design by Frank Labovitz
  • Wig Design by Anne Nesmith
  • Lighting Design by Colin K. Bills
  • Sound Design by Lane Elms
  • Video Design by Rocco DiSanti
  • Production Stage Manager: Kerry Epstein
  • Assistant Director and Dramaturg: Paige Kiliany
  • Assistant Director: Walter Ware III
  • Assistant Stage Manager: Erin C. Patrick

Disclaimer: Signature Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on ShowBizRadio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, Alexandria’s American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with Arlington’s American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David’s musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.

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