The Threepenny Opera

Studio 54 - NYC, 2006
Review by John Kenrick

If the two demented teens who committed the nightmarish massacre at Columbine High School had been theatrically inclined, they might very well have come up with something like the Roundabout's ghastly new production of The Threepenny Opera. This staging is drenched in Goth fashions and pointless obscenities, offering the the kind of incoherence one expects from witless pubescent minds. Sadly, it does not have much of anything to do with the masterpiece that playwright Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill unleashed on the world back in 1928.

Instead of a searing send-up of middle-class pretensions, we get a jumbled explosion of anger that doesn't really skewer anyone or anything. For all its vulgarity, this production actually de-fangs Brecht & Weill, a crime that Wallace Shawn's clumsy, potty-mouthed translation stands accused and convicted of. Director Scott Elliott has no clue what to do with this compromised material. However strong his record with smaller productions may be, Elliott is clearly at a loss when it comes to helming a full-scale Broadway musical.

Lacking a central focus, the creative team flounders aimlessly, and finally heads off in several directions at once -- winding up nowhere. The action is still set in London during the days before Queen Victoria's coronation, but the tone is a misconceived 1920s Berlin and the look is ever-so 2006 East Village. What a mess! Some of Derek McLane's sets strike the right tones, but Isaac Mizrahi's relentlessly ugly costumes make one grateful that Jason Lyons keeps the lighting dingy throughout most of the proceedings. On the plus side, the wonderful Kevin Stites conducts Weill's original orchestrations with a sure hand -- despite the fact that his musicians have been split up, jammed into the box seats at either side of the stage. And speaking of seats, the Roundabout has finally deigned to install real theatre seats in Studio 54's orchestra section, so audiences can at least slumber through this thing with some basic degree of comfort.

Gifted trouper Jim Dale shines as Mr. Peachum, but it is not until well into the second act that he finally gets a chance to cut loose, giving a desperately needed glimmer of real entertainment. Anna Gasteyer is wasted as his strident wife, and Nellie McKay is a total disgrace as their daughter Polly. Her inept performance of the classic song "Pirate Jenny" amounts to a crucifixion, robbing it of any impact. She can neither sing nor act, and it is only the lack of any real choreography that prevents our being able to classify her as a triple threat. As it is, McKay should would do well to stay away from musical theatre in the future. If she qualifies as a pop star, it is small wonder that pop music is such a wasteland today.

Cyndi Lauper fares far better as Jenny, giving this rundown prostitute more humanity and pathos than any other character in this production. What a pity she did not make her Broadway debut in a role that showed off her substantial gifts to better advantage. Christopher Innvar is well cast as the corrupt police chief Tiger Brown -- and while his final appearance in nothing more than a loin cloth is dramatically inexplicable, it does provide this production with its only moment of real eye candy. As Brown's sister Lucy, the delightful Brian Charles Rooney is used to turn the character into a transvestite -- a nice showcase for Rooney's talents that does the authors (and the audience) no favors.

Strutting about and tongue-kissing both boys and girls with abandon, Alan Cumming strives mightily to breath some life into this director's murky conception of the amoral Macheath, but ultimately succeeds in exhausting himself to no purpose. And if Cumming must strip down to his skivvies on stage, he would do well to slip in a few sessions with Mr. Innvar's personal trainer.

The saddest thing about this disaster is that many will walk away from it thinking that they have seen The Threepenny Opera by Brecht & Weill -- and such is not the case. Shame on the Roundabout Theatre Company for trashing a masterwork.

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