The Colgate University Theater’s first musical production in several years begins with a street singer crooning to an unseen woman who he calls “babe” about the play’s hero, a smooth operator known as “Mack the Knife” who has a penchant for theft, womanizing and making inconvenient people disappear. That song was a hit when it was first released and was taken on by singers like Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong. A swinging version by Bobby Darin even won a Grammy for Record of the Year. The University Theater’s production of The Threepenny Opera, a musical written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill and adapted to English by Marc Blitzstein, revels in the sordid schemes and compromised moral reality of its hero MacHeath, known as Mack the Knife.
The Threepenny Opera, named for the London street performances that cost only a three-pence, and which first debuted in 1928 in Berlin, is based on a morality play told in paintings by John Gay called “The Beggar’s Opera.” Playwright Bertolt Brecht, in adapting these paintings into drama, wanted his audience to confront the moral and social dilemmas of a simple beggar trying to make it for himself by the slippery ways of London’s underworld. It is a world populated by beggars, thieves, prostitutes and petty businessmen. The conflict revolves around MacHeath attempting to marry Polly Peachum, the daughter of a sleazy small boss in this underworld who then attempts to intervene.
In his productions, Bertolt Brecht was known for his technique of “alienation,” which attempted to alienate and distance his audience from the action so that they might confront the social, political and moral forces at work in the action. This production, helmed by veteran Broadway director Eleanor Reissa, abandoned the alienation for a more integrated approach. The fourth wall of the stage was clearly broken (at my seat in the front row I was personally urged by an actor at one point to give to the poor.) This is a Brecht production that wants to pull us in and maybe even implicate us.
The production had strong performances all around. Junior Joshua Jackson in the lead as MacHeath gave a performance that stood out as emotionally direct and vulnerable. This was a Mack the Knife who was less the slick manipulator and more of a person who was hostage to the societal forces, and the alluring ladies and wenches, around him. Senior Denny Gonzalez and sophomore Elyse McGrath turned in stand-out performances as Mr. and Mrs. Peachum. Both seemed to have fun in their roles and were naturals in their parts, as the morally bankrupt parents who, in their selfishness, do everything but give their daughter the protection she needs. This was both a first and last performance in University Theater for graduating senior Denny Gonzalez. Sophomore Katie Sotos played an unflappable Polly Peachum who from her innocence led us into the moral morass of the threepenny opera. The other roles of the beggars, wenches and crooked policemen who rounded out the production were played with spirit and a sense of fun. It was a very enjoyable take on the material.
The music directed by Dianne Adams McDowell did a superb job at bringing a very orchestral score down to minimal and jazzy arrangements. First-year Jungmin Kang gave a strong interpretation of “Mack the Knife,” and senior Molly Frantzen also had a show-stopping solo number as she sang a scorned lover’s torch song to Mack.
It was a production that should have all the notoriety of Mack himself.