THE THREEPENNY OPERA. Opera by Kurt Weill, libretto by Bertolt Brecht. Directed by David M. Jenkins. Cast: Jennifer Casler: Bob the Saw / Ensemble; Colleen Cherry: Streetsinger / Betty; Spence Gabriel: Crookfinger Jake / Ensemble; Amy E. Gray: Jenny Diver; Jonathan Harrison: J. J. Peachum; Chelsea Hooker: Rev. Kimball / Coaxer / Ensemble; Chris Jackson: Macheath, “Mack the Knife”; Fo’i Meleah: Celia Peachum; Spencer Meyers: Streetsinger / Readymoney Matt; Giselle Muise: Polly Peachum; Maggie Mularz: Lucy Brown / Ensemble; Derrick Phillips: Tiger Brown; Alex Rivera: Smith / Walt / Ensemble; Olivia Sargent: Dolly / Ensemble; Katrina Stevenson: Molly / Ensemble; Ryan Sturm: Filch.
Each new production of The Threepenny Opera is worth seeing. This one is no exception. Although it’s almost 90 years old, its themes of collusion between authority and thievery, and its sly takes on sexual relationships are always current. Jobsite Theatre’s production at Tampa’s Straz Center for the Performing Arts gets most of it right.
Most notable is the amazing energy of the piece, its pace bordering on the frenetic. Characters run and jump across the stage with the exuberance of youth, and mug – tastefully, never excessively – for the audience. And it’s likely that writer Bertold Brecht would’ve wholeheartedly approved of their fourth-wall theatrics. In an early number, the street singers execute a well-choreographed number holding pictures of Mack the knife in front of their faces, a device as clever as it is unexpected. The set design is near-perfect, with its complex network of steps and faux-shoddy props.
Some of my favorite lines are delivered with appropriate spunk: “The reply to a kick in the pants is just another kick in the pants” and “What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of the bank?” are hurled at the audience like darts and hit their marks with stunning accuracy. I for one am impressed.
Fo’i Meleah as Celia Peachum is a redoubtable presence and belts out songs like “The Ballad of Sexual Submissiveness” as if she lived them. Her moments on stage are enjoyably cynical and arch. Her voice is distinctive and well modulated. Similarly, Derrick Phillips as Tiger Brown was a wise casting choice. He embodies the conflicts between friendship and duty quite well. Plus, when he sings the stirring “Canon Song” with Chris Jackson as Macheath, you hear the sarcasm of every word. I’ve never experienced a better putdown of the army than this song, and this rendition confirms that it’s still valid. Listen closely, you naïve boys who want to enlist. Speaking of Jackson, how is he as the lead character Macheath? Not bad, it turns out. His acting is slightly better than his singing, which could use a bit of work. He delivers all the notes, but they could have used more elan, the kind that actors like Raul Julia delivered. (Watch his louche rendition of “Tango Ballad.” You can hear the leer in his voice.)
Like Lotte Lenya’s Jenny, Jackson’s Macheath doesn’t necessarily have to hit all the notes or perfectly enunciate every word. But in this play he needs to spit them out with conviction.
I would have liked to have heard at least one contralto, perhaps in the role of Lucy Brown. The jealousy duet between her and Giselle Muise’s Polly Peachum would’ve had more contrast, as it did in the 1954 production with Bea Arthur as Lucy. (Nice husky aggressive voice.) But as J. Peachum sings, “it seems that circumstance won’t have it so.” What we have here in the final product is an earnest, lively, spirited, moving, and slightly flawed production. And that’s enough.