Theatre Review: ‘The Threepenny Opera’ at the Center For The Arts

There’s a fascination with Bertolt Brecht, especially in times of political…shall we say…absurdity. His theater of alienation is rooted in lack of formula; he desired to pull the audience into the story and then yank them out of it. It’s almost like Brecht’s work aimed to point out the absurdity of theater. Pair that with Kurt Weill’s iconic score and a brand-new English adaptation by Simon Stephens, and the UB Department of Theatre and Dance has a raunchy and engaging work on their hands. UB is to be commended for their continued mission to challenge and educate, and this production challenges. There are signs AND a pre-show announcement alerting the audience to the mature language and simulated situations that will appear.

Immediately, the company enters and is seen in a frozen tableau, and then disappears. Then, a balladeer enters and sings “The Ballad of Mack the Knife.” Yes, we all know the song, but have we ever listened to the lyrics? Right away, we’re thrust into the seedy world of contrast. The rich are rich. The poor are poor. They both know it. As the King of the Beggars JJ Peachum, Thomas Evans introduces us to the hypocrisy of the rich. His wife stumbles in, and its clear she’s hardly faithful. The morality is on its side, and that’s the point. Evans is fabulous in his foppishness, and he’s well paired with Kelsey Marlowe Jessup as his wife Celia. There’s one thing they agree on, however; they cannot lose their daughter Polly to immorality. And yet, she’s lost, married to the notorious Macheath. He and his merry band of men are celebrating Mack’s honeymoon with Polly at the Savoy Hotel, and it’s clear there’s mischief intended. The gang sings a very vulgar marriage song to Polly but are surprised (as are the members of the audience) when she has a dark and murderous answer in the form of “Pirate Jenny.” Hannah Keller is delightful as Polly, but not in the way you’d expect. She understands the subtleties of the material, and she’s an excellent singer to boot. As her counterpart Macheath, Nathan Roberts grasps the maniacal nature of the character, but it’s not until Act Two that we’re delivered the full scope of his charm. He’s vocally proficient, but his opening night performance is marred slightly by the wear of tech week on his vocal cords.

The rest of the ensemble supports these leading players well, aided especially by the choreography by John Fredo. Camille Cappello is a gritty Jenny whose diction sometimes works against her, especially in an otherwise effective “Solomon Song.” Anna Fernandez, as Lucy Brown, is spot on in her portrayal. It’s almost Velma Kelly-esque. Rory Tamimie, as “Tiger” Brown, stole the show for me. He’s making the best of a difficult role, hitting all the right moments. Kudos to his beyond-his-years portrayal.

My only qualm with the production comes in its Americanization. Perhaps there’s something indicated in this new production (which premiered at the National Theatre in London to mixed reviews) that allows the performers to use their natural accents, but it made little sense to me that with a script full of British colloquialisms the performers used their American accents. The story takes place in London, there are British jokes and references, it just didn’t seem to make sense and actually worked against the pacing of the script. It’s a minor detail, but Brecht’s style is so specific that everything pace related should be considered.

Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes plus a 15-minute intermission.

“The Threepenny Opera” runs this weekend only and was presented at The Center For The Arts at the University at Buffalo. For more information, click here.