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Review: ‘Threepenny Opera’ is energetic, fluid’

April 8, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) — Mackie’s back in town, and he and his fellow degenerates are serving up their anger and irony in The Atlantic Theater Company’s energetic revival of “The Threepenny Opera,” which opened Monday night off-Broadway at the Linda Gross Theater.

This fluid production of the famously sardonic musical by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill is directed and choreographed by Martha Clarke, with music direction by Gary S. Fagin. Weill’s discordant, jazz-infused score is well-served by a brassy, bowler-hatted seven-member band led by Fred Lassen on keyboard.

Brecht and Weill based their 1929 work on John Gay’s 1728 parody, “The Beggar’s Opera,” creating a scathing satire of the Weimar era in Germany. Their bilious view of the general poverty, oppression and widespread corruption of the time remains bitingly relevant today. One criminal leader muses that there’s not much difference between robbing a bank and founding one, and most people affected by recent global recessions will heartily agree.

Using the English adaptation by Marc Blitzstein, Clarke sets the show in 19th-century London right before the coronation of Queen Victoria. Her overall atmosphere, at times almost dreamlike, is neither terribly edgy nor cartoonishly vulgar.

Michael Park is strong and sensual as Macheath, the womanizing gang leader and anti-hero whose downfall is set in motion when he pretends to marry virginal Polly Peachum (a charmingly radiant enactment by Laura Osnes). Polly’s father (F. Murray Abraham, blithely venal), runs the beggars of London like a well-organized army, and can’t tolerate a fellow gang member in the family. He and his harpy wife, (an appropriately strident Mary Beth Peil) aggressively use bribery and blackmail to ensure their unwanted son-in-law’s arrests and eventual trip to the gallows.

Diverse staging ranges from sprightly (a group of beggars indoctrinates a new member in their deceptive arts), to vaudevillian (inept sleeping cops unwittingly aid a jailbreak) while allowing pauses for poignant renditions of dark and often abrasive ballads. Clarke provides a memorably dissolute, languid scene wherein scantily-clad prostitutes, occasionally nude, drift around in slow motion while listlessly servicing customers in their brothel.

Among the many women Macheath treats carelessly (“Oh, the line forms on the right, dears”) are prostitute Jenny Diver, (beautifully performed by Sally Murphy, especially her world-weary “Pirate Jenny”), and the once-respectable but now pregnant Lucy Brown (Lilli Cooper, a strong singer whose modern song interpretations feel misplaced). Rick Holmes is nicely blustery as buffoonish police chief Tiger Brown, and a bulldog named Romeo enlivens the finale without stealing the show from the fine ensemble.

Clarke’s presentation of the Brecht-Weill classic may be more dreamlike and less harsh than other New York productions have been, but retains the essential core of dark humor that softens the bleak heart of this musical.

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