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Review: 'The Threepenny Opera' at International City Theatre

February 24, 2009 |  4:00 pm

Threepenny_opera Watch out, cops, con men and women who love too much. Mackie’s back in town, and his teeth are sharper than ever in International City Theatre’s crisp new production of “The Threepenny Opera.” Now 80 years old, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s dark parable of sex, cynicism and urban anxiety remains bracingly fresh — particularly as our era’s own poor and huddled masses multiply by the day.

Somewhere in Victorian London, dashing outlaw Macheath (Jeff Griggs) has swept Polly Peachum (Shannon Warne) off her prim feet. Cue the outrage of both Polly’s father (Tom Shelton), a poverty czar with a citywide army of beggars, and a lovesick posse of the bandit’s exes, including sultry Jenny Diver (Zarah Mahler). Macheath needs to hang. On John Iacovelli’s abstracted gallows set, director Jules Aaron choreographs his cast like figures in a series of dioramas, their colorful costumes popping against the black stage. The effect is comic book Dickensian and for the most part works well. (The translation is Michael Feingold’s.)

Satire, love story, cabaret: “Threepenny” restlessly changes moods all night. Brecht’s scene writing is nearly inert; his lyrics hold all the drama, and the play showcases some of the 20th century’s most haunting narrative songwriting: the sublime revenge fantasy “Pirate Jenny,” the torchy  “Pimp’s Ballad,” and of course “Ballad of Mack the Knife.” Driven by Weill’s percussive, brassy rhythms -- beer hall oompah on a late-night bender -- these songs are like a heady love affair. Intimate and conspiratorial, they draw you in, then drop you flat. No wonder they’re so hard to pull off; you need technique and attitude.

Griggs, his eyes blackened in come-hither menace, plays Macheath with supple vocal and physical athleticism. Warne is nicely tart as Polly, the no-nonsense girl with a compulsive attraction to bad boys. Her goofy scene with another jilted lass, Lucy (a deliciously jealous Rachel Genevieve), breaks through the production’s rigid presentational style; sometime a pie in the face can liven things up. Shelton gives Peachum’s double standards plenty of easy charm and, as his wife, Eileen T’Kaye looks like she might fly off on a broom. Musical director Darryl Archibald conducts an upstage band with flair, and the ensemble numbers have real punch.

Unfortunately, the ICT space can be a little unforgiving on the ear, and the lyrics, especially the ends of words, were tough to make out.  The muddy sound contributed to a sense of distance — this “Threepenny” is accomplished, fetching and well sung but slightly out of reach. Still, the show’s final lyrics cast a chill. The cast members don’t lose a degree of sangfroid as they stare down the audience. Our comfortable voyeurism, they point out, is also form of theft: “Those in the light are/ There to look at/ Those in darkness/ Lost to sight.”

-- Charlotte Stoudt

“The Threepenny Opera,” International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 22. $35 to $45. Contact: (562) 436-4610 or Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

Photo: The cast of "The Threepenny Opera." Credit: Shashin Desai