The new production of the new translation of Brecht’s Three Penny Opera is great fun, much better than reviews would have you believe. Part of this may be as they say, the difficulty people have with Brecht, but there are some major flaws too. First the greatness: Wallace Shawn’s translation is funny, clipped, and in places, inspired. The direction was interesting, but too slow for a modern audience–perhaps it would have been too slow for Brecht’s day too, I wouldn’t know that. Cyndi Lauper does a kind of Marianne Faithful approach to the songs, which are brilliant, but she’s not comfortable in her role of the whore with a heart of gold without the heart of gold. She hits the opening song to perfection, but otherwise appears lost.
The entire Peachum family is brilliant–absolutely brilliant. Nellie McKay played Polly Peachum the way Cate Blanchett played Katherine Hepburn in Aviator, and Ana Gasteyer, a SNL alumnae, played Mrs. Peachum as if she were a character on the Sopranos. Both were brilliant: McKay particularly so in the marriage scene where she performs her first song, and again in the scene with Lucy Brown, also brilliant, and the scene one of the most inspired. I’m not sure who Jim Dale, Mr. Peachum was, but I am sure he was the brightest light in the play. His voice–also famous as the voice of Harry Potter–and his physicality both stunning. At one point he got so much applause he stepped forward and flirted directly with the audience before stepping back and into character. He moved like a sheath of silk, the gorgeously tacky suit a whole character unto itself. The set and costumes were fitting, the staging functional. Costumes by fashion shark Isaac Mizrahi were gay (quell surprise) and fun, a 70s punk feel. But he failed in the most important character: Macheath himself. Actually Macheath–Mack the Knife–was the biggest disappointment. From the costume to the timing he was all off. Strutting around like the emcee in Cabaret, which I’m sure he was born to play, and like his recent turn as Billy on L Word, which was also fun, but it didn’t translate here. It’s impossible to figure out why anyone would be “in love” with him. No charisma. Not the brightest light on the stage, not mercurial, in fact one-note from top to bottom. The other problem was with the “gang”, a bunch of wooden actors looking nervous in their glittering heeled ensembles.
The politics seem so naive, so atari 1973. Particularly in that setting, and particularly with folks such as Mizrahi–who at one point dresses everyone in corporate logos–involved. Of course I identify with Brecht’s position, but how do we achieve such statements now? I mean the play was a hit, ran for what, 3 years consecutively? What political theater would do that now? Not this one. The political messages largely seemed quaint. Not all, the “How do humans live” was actually powerful, but it didn’t seem to implicate anyone. Must theater implicate? Perhaps not, but it must connect.
In any case, a fabulous night of theater, and in general a successful production. The night was made more fabulous by the idiots who wouldn’t leave our seats–finally the play started and in frustration we went to an usher who sat us in the front row balcony. Fabulous seats. Great night. Def’ see.