Review: ‘The Three Penny Opera’ at Spotlighters Theatre

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Ever-willing to mount bold musicals with large casts you’d never expect to see in such an intimate, cozy space (remember last year’s gorgeous Evita?), Fuzz Roark at Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre (“Spotlighters”) has done it again. Spotlighters’ first show of 2017 proves once again that you really can fit a big Broadway musical into a small space and still make it, well, sing.

Kay-Megan Washington (Celia Peachum), Steve Quintilian (Macheath), and Glen Charlow (The Policeman). Photo by Shealyn Jae Photography.

On January 13th, Spotlighters opened The Threepenny Opera, a play by Bertolt Brecht, with music by Kurt Weill, that is based on and adapted from Elizabeth Hauptmann’s translation of The Beggar’s Opera by Jonathan Gay. Director Michael Blum, making the Spotlighters version even more timely and relatable, has gone the extra step of editing, adapting and providing new translations for this classic piece. The result is an excellent production as relevant today as it was when it first hit the stage in Berlin in 1928.

In his Director’s Note, Blum explains that the “production takes place simultaneously in Baltimore in the winter of 2017 and London in the summer of 1838.” The two notable events occurring at those times? The inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States and the coronation of Queen Victoria of England. The Threepenny Opera is a scathing social commentary on “bourgeois capitalism and modern morality” that shines a light on the perils of a world in which outrageous wealth disparity fosters a culture of graft, corruption, and vice.

The story revolves around a gangster named Captain Macheath or, as we more commonly know him from popular culture, Mack the Knife. Murder, robbery, and all manner of criminal endeavor are the lucrative business of Mack and his gang, though you’d never find evidence of it in Scotland Yard thanks to Mack’s war buddy, the High Sherriff of London. Mack’s surely got a list of enemies, but none so committed as the Peachums. Jonathan Peachum, the boss of a large network of beggars in London, and his wife, Celia, are livid when they discover that Mack has secretly married their daughter, Polly. Mack’s still-current wife, Lucy, and a prostitute named Jenny aren’t exactly happy with Mack either. As one might imagine, treachery and drama ensues.

After a bit of 21st century Baltimore panhandling, the show begins with “Moritat (The Ballad of Mack the Knife),” a song popularized even with people who’d never heard of the play by superstar crooners Bobby Darin and Frank Sinatra. Connor Moore, who plays the Streetsinger (as well as Charles Fitch, Rev. Kimball, and the Messenger) holds his own against those greats with a strong, pleasing rendition of the narrative tune that sets the scene and the mood for the rest of the show.

The audience next meets the Peachums, Frank Mancino as Mr. Jonathan Peachum and Kay-Megan Washington as his wife, Celia. I’ve enjoyed Frank Mancino’s fine acting a dozen times or more and somehow have never before heard him sing. What a pleasant surprise to hear him performing the early “Wake-up Song,” as well as his duet with Washington and the later, “The Song of the Futility of Human Endeavor!” I love discovering a whole new side of an actor whose work I enjoy. And Kay-Megan Washington… what a powerful, beautiful voice. Every time Washington opens her mouth, whether acting or singing, is a delight, but none so much as her big number, the sweeping “Ballad of Sex Addiction.”

There are several fine duets between Allison Hicks, as Polly Peachum, and her character’s rogue husband, Captain “Mack the Knife” Macheath, ably performed by Steve Quintilian. “Love Song” and “Polly’s Song,” in particular, come to mind. Both also have the opportunity to showcase their talent in solos – Quintilian, in the spirited “Ballad of Easy Living” and Hicks, lending her lovely soprano to “Barbara Song” and the fun “Bill’s Beer Hall in Balboa.”

Other memorable moments in a show of fine singing all-around include Amber Hooper’s performance as Lucy Brown, singing “Lucy’s Aria (The Poisoning Song);” the outstanding Evangeline Ridgaway, as Jenny Diver, singing both “Pirate Jenny” and “Solomon Song;” and Rob Wall as the High Sheriff of London, Jack “Tiger” Brown’s reprise of “Moritat (The Ballad of Mack the Knife).”

Music Director Erica Rome maintains the mood and the gritty feel of Weill’s quite operatic composition throughout the show. Not only did she guide this cast of talented singers in the preparation of their performances, Rome – alongside synthesizer player/percussionist William George – also accompanies the actors live during the production.

Set Designer/ Scenic Artist Alan S. Zemla chose a simple base set that was flexible enough to represent a number of locations through either rearrangement, like the wedding bed, or the addition of articles brought to the stage, like the shackles used to take Mack to jail. The jail, as well as the Peachum’s store, The Beggars’ Best Friend, are offstage and well-designed for their respective purposes. Lighting Designer Al Ramer enhances the set, providing lighting that helps set the scene regardless of location.

Allison Hicks as Polly Peachum. Photo by Shealyn Jae Photography.

The Costume Design Team of Amy Wiemer, Darcy Elliott, and Andrew Malone supplied the players with a series of costumes that were spot-on for their various roles. Mack and the Peachums were all kitted in finery appropriate for their stations; Polly’s mourning dress is particularly beautiful. Mack’s gang – Jim Knost, Stuart Kazanow, Dave Guy, and Glen Charlow look a perfect combination of dandy and dangerous. And Amie Bell, Andrea Bush, Rachel Verhaaren, Kristin Miller, Evangeline Ridgaway, and Amber Hooper – collectively, “The Whores,” look fantastic in both their 1920s flapper dresses and period pieces, as well as in their, um, “professional” attire.

The Threepenny Opera, currently playing at Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, shows how classic theater can remain relevant and timely when mounted by a company that produces it with care and an eye to the world we live in. An insightful show when it first ran in the late 1920s, now updated and under the direction of Michael Blum, this show remains a piece of art that not only entertains, but has something to say.

As Blum asserts in his Note:

The Threepenny Opera is rooted in a deep desire to make people want to fight – ‘but not too eagerly’ – for social and economic justice. Its bleak and bitter view of today’s world challenges us to not simply accept ‘the way things are’.”

Spotlighters’ The Threepenny Opera is a well-designed production with great acting and singing that includes a little nudge to make our world better. What more could you want?

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 50 minutes, including one intermission.

The Threepenny Opera plays through February 5, 2017, at Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre – 817 St. Paul Street in Baltimore, MD. Tickets may be purchased at the box office or online.

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