'Threepenny Opera' comes alive

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By Doug Deuchler

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I have always wanted to see The Threepenny Opera. When I was in junior high about 60 years ago, I won a jitterbug contest at someone's birthday party and received the 45-rpm record of Bobby Darrin's version of "Mack the Knife." I loved the popular song, but the content of the lyrics was totally indecipherable. Who, for instance, were Macheath, Sukey Tawdry and Lucy Brown? The song was rooted in a play with music that premiered in Berlin in 1928. How would we know it?

So I was thrilled to see the new production of Threepenny Opera produced by The Collective of Concordia University Chicago at Madison Street Theater. The play was written by Bertolt Brecht and adapted from a German translation by Brecht's lover, Elisabeth Hauptman, based on John Gay's 18th-century English operetta, The Beggar's Opera. The unique music is by Kurt Weill, whose score transcends the nine decades. Brecht's politics and messages, however, may have lost their luster.

Despite the word "opera" in its title, this show is predominantly a theater piece. It's a play punctuated with songs, but I think the 91-year-old show owes its longevity to its exuberant music.

Director Jason Narvy takes a big chance with this material but captures the rowdy, circus atmosphere in the busy, low-life plot. There are many demanding roles, but his energetic student company is strong. Maurice Boyer, the musical director, notably mounts each number.

Brecht, always an anti-realist, sought to shake audiences out of complacency. He placed the blame on capitalist society for the criminal underworld.

This piece surely tests the performers. The work is challenging in that it's a potentially problematic amalgam of opera, vaudeville and politics. But they rise to meet the challenges. Most have solid singing voices.

The mood is never heart-warming, in contrast to most musicals. Even when a wedding takes place, the bride and groom are on opposite sides of the performance space. It's difficult to get emotionally involved.

There are many darkly engaging characters. Nearly everyone in the large ensemble sports starkly exaggerated makeup. The costumes are wild and fun. The set, designed by featured student artist Rachael Nuckles, is outstanding. She has expanded the performance space out stage left. The setting, a hide-out for a gaggle of beggars, is hung with strings of lights, jam-packed with broken furniture and trunks, and decorated with graffiti and placards designed to awaken social responsibility. 

Macheath (aka Mac the Knife), played by Eamon Gonzales, is a shark-like scoundrel and serial murderer who is London's most notorious and charming criminal. 

Tyler Vincent and Kelsey Schultz play a hardened couple, the Peachums. Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum is a criminal mastermind who controls an army of beggars. Celia Peachum is his bossy, floozy wife. These two run a fake beggar racket in the underbelly of the city.

Katie Rub plays Polly, the couple's only daughter, who marries Macheath. Her father is so displeased, he concocts a plot to betray his new son-in-law and see him hanged.

Police Chief Tiger Brown, portrayed by Emil Clausing, seems to have ambiguous sexuality and is perpetually panic-stricken. Clausing also takes over at the piano at various points.

It's a true ensemble production, with each actor and musician bringing out the best in the others. The band is always in plain sight, mostly perched above the action. This versatile group of musicians plays everything from accordions to saxophones. They also interact with the characters. Gonzales at times plays a banjo, a guitar and a flute.

The lighting by Joshua Christ adds much to the mood and atmosphere. 

What audiences found shocking and politically cutting-edge about capitalism, corruption and hypocrisy 90 years ago perhaps seems somewhat belabored today. But the show is fascinating and lively. We're so lucky to have a solid production here in our community.

Within five years of the opening of this show in Germany, Hitler came to power. Both Brecht, an ardent anti-Nazi, and Weill, a Jew, fled the country.

See "The Threepenny Opera," Friday and Saturday, April 12 and 13, 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 14, 3 p.m., at Madison Street Theatre. Tickets: CUCThreepenny.brownpapertickets.com. $15; $10, students/seniors. 1010 Madison St., Oak Park. 

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