Monday, February 10, 2014

San Jose Stage Delivers a Raucous Threepenny

Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera
Feb. 8, 2014
San Jose Stage Company

When it comes to musicals, it seems that the Stage Company has decided to find the most difficult projects they can – and deliver them with a ridiculous level of success. Thus, they have followed up 2013’s sexy, hyperkinetic Reefer Madness: The Musical with an impressive charge at Brecht and Weill’s landmark, almost uncategorizable creation.

The work’s genesis goes back to 1728, when English writer John Gay wrote a play about a dashing criminal named Macheath and peppered it with 69 popular songs. His creation, called a “ballad opera,” was unprecedented, and amazingly popular. Nearly two centuries later, in 1920, The Beggar’s Opera began a run of 1,463 nights at Hammersmith’s Lyric Theater.

It was precisely that production that inspired Bertolt Brecht to create a German adaptation, with music by Kurt Weill. Brecht’s ideas of audience alienation added another level of idiosyncracy, knocking down the fourth wall and planting seeds of self-aware artistry that grew into the postmodern movement of the late 20th century.

Both The Beggar’s Opera and Die Dreigroschenoper were intended for actors who sing, which has led to an unfortunate tendency to cast actors who bark, rumble and squeak. This takes away from Weill’s score, which marries a ruthlessly modern sense of melody with an orchestration that employs jazz and German folk music. Laypeople know the work’s prologue, The Ballad of Mac the Knife, as the swung-up version recorded in the ‘50s by Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin.

Halsey Varady, playing the prostitute Jenny Diver, delivers that prologue with a fearless intensity, serving notice that this production will feature actual singing. The cast also offers former Opera San Jose soprano Susan Gundunas, who displays authentic chops in The Ballad of Sexual Imperative and lends Mrs. Peachum the cartoonish, drunken air of Angela Lansbury in Sweeney Todd.

Our Macheath, Johnny Moreno, falls more on the singing actor side, but his gruff delivery is well-suited to the part, and his ferocity is a little terrifying, especially in the gallows farewell, The Ballad in Which Macheath Begs for All Men’s Forgiveness. Playing Peachum, the unhappy father of the bride, Paul Myrvold style is something like Henry Higgins playing Oliver’s Fagin. His Song of Inadequacy cuts to the heart of economic justice: You want us to be happy? Give us some damn food! (Brecht’s social commentary is scarily applicable to today’s America.) Perhaps the most fearsome visions of the night came from Allison F. Rich, who performed Medusa-like eyeball tricks as Lucy Brown.

Naturally, I save the best for last. Playing Macheath’s young bride, Polly Peachum, Monique Hafen employs a startlingly agile voice and a divine sense of the theatrical moment. She takes Weill’s best music and makes the most of it: the sadistic proletarian fantasia of “Pirate Jenny” (check out the Nina Simone recording sometime), the girls-loving-bad-boys Barbara Song, and the Jealousy Duet, a deliciously filthy catfight with Lucy.

Director Kenneth Kelleher did a superb job of balancing his actors on the tightrope of good-bad acting (over-the-top, but a committed over-the-top), a feeling greatly assisted by the quirky, mechanical choreography of Marybeth Cavanaugh. The Brechtian alienation was furthered by the projection of tabloid headlines and song titles by Garland Thompson, Jr., and Jean Cardinale’s costumes seem to have come from the thrift store next to the asylum, particularly Peachum’s cherry-red pinstripe suit. Allison F. Rich doubled as conductor/pianist of the six-member band, which featured one member, Tony Frye, playing banjo, guitar, bass and trombone.

Through March 30, 490 S. First St., San Jose. $25-$50, 408/283-7142,

PS The translation by Robert MacDonald and Jeremy Sams features much adult language, and the cast partakes in sexually suggestive behavior. Prudes need not attend.

Image: Halsey Varady (Jenny Diver) and Johnny Moreno (Macheath). Photo by Dave Lepori.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 30-year opera critic and author of the novels Operaville and Gabriella's Voice.

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