Three Penny Opera (Frank Theatre, performing at the Southern, through May 4) was written in 1928 by playwright Bertolt Brecht with music by composer Kurt Weill. I point this out because the program for the Frank production makes no mention of these two great artists; they are unnamed, un-bioed, unacknowledged in any way.
Nor does anyone receive credit for the English adaptation (and there are many English versions). I am thus unable to tell you who turned Brecht’s muscular German into flaccid and somewhat static English.
(Please note: Frank artistic director, and director of Three Penny Opera, Wendy Knox, plans to rectify this situation with a program insert.)
Be forewarned: Three Penny Opera is a long play (3 hours and 20 minutes). Although Brecht is, arguably, the seminal artist of 20th century theater Three Penny Opera cannot be counted among his finest works (e.g., Galileo, Mother Courage, The Good Person of Setzuan, et al). In Three Penny Opera Brecht was working with found material (John Gay‘s 18th century The Beggar’s Opera). It’s one of his first full length plays and his first success (the play received more than 10,000 performances around Europe). Much of the action is repetitive and predictable. There is a distressing sameness to the characters (especially the women). The story is excellent – Crime! Twisted sexuality! Thrift store beggars! – but thematically the play doesn’t always land. And—
Okay, okay, enough about all this.
The music! Wow! Kurt Weill’s work in Three Penny Opera is beyond brilliant. Every song is a masterpiece. “The Ballad of Mack The Knife” (beautifully performed by the ensemble, with restraint and flesh slapping power), “The Barbara Song,” “The Ballad Of Pirate Jenny.” To name a few. Three Penny Opera, to its great credit, doesn’t make you wait for the wonderful music.
The Frankists do outstanding work with the Weill songs, starting with the always luminous Bradley Greenwald as the cheerfully evil Macheath. Greenwald charms, preens, smiles – and creeps us out entirely. His leather pants are a brilliant touch (kudos to costumer Kathy Kohl). As Polly Peachum Suzie Juul is a marvel, a brilliant singer and a genuine comic presence. Kira Lace Hawkins at first put me off with her “pretty” Jeannette MacDonald voice, but I soon forgave her and fell in love with her presence and charisma.
My fave performance, though, is Molly Sue MacDonald as Jenny Diver; she has a vivid muscular presence, sexy and powerful. Vern Sutton thrills as the nasty narrator, James Ramlet as the blow-your-hair-back powerful Jack Brown, Gary Briggle as Peachum with the footlong mustache, stop me, someone.
Long, yes, but this Three Penny Opera is definitely worthwhile. The story is good. Director Wendy Knox, as always, dishes up an energized and intelligent production. Designers Joe Stanley, Karin Olson, Sean Healey, Wynn Fricke do yeoperson work. And the music, of course, thrills.
Next up at Frank: Grounded by George Brant (who seems to be our new “it” playwright). Frank is making us wait until October for this one.
For more info about John Olive please visit his (recently updated) website.