‘The Threepenny Opera’ at Signature Theatre

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Stepping into the Signature Theatre’s MAX Theatre, you immediately realize that you are standing on a giant, weathered Union Jack—transported, perhaps a bit uneasily for some, into the eerie streets of London at a time from a not-too-distant past. With nothing around but a garishly neon sign flickering “In$tant Ca$h” and some graffiti on the wall that proclaims “One Nation Under $$$,” a scantily clad woman smoking by a worn post reminds you that something is not quite right. This world—one created by Scenic Designer Misha Kachman and Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills—is one that seems distant, yet all-too-familiar; stock market data scrolls across screens in the background, perhaps the only familiar comfort in an otherwise foreign landscape.

Natascia Diaz and Mitchell Jarvis. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Natascia Diaz and Mitchell Jarvis. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The lights dim snappishly—almost violently—and a woman (Natascia Diaz)—bare except for a short slip dress and a blood-red coat—emerges from the shadows, singing to us about a mysterious murderer and rapist—the enigmatic antihero of the show—in “The Flick Knife Song.” She tells us about a vicious, violent man who “violated [women] in her slumber” and “slashes at his prey” in gruesome detail. The audience cringes.

The song builds and then, suddenly, screeches to an abrupt halt. There is complete silence, the audience holds its breath and, after a few brief suspenseful moments, hesitantly exhales.

The audience is hooked. I was hooked.

Even just the first few brief moments of Signature Theatre’s The Threepenny Opera showcases that Signature has yet another groundbreaking musical on its hands. Under the direction of Matthew Gardiner, the MAX Theatre transforms into London’s gritty underworld in this reimagined futuristic dystopia for The Threepenny Opera, an adaptation of John Gay’s 1728 ballad-opera The Beggar’s Opera, “a satirical commentary on politics, poverty, injustice, and corruption at all levels of society.”

Threepenny Opera—perhaps not as well-known as some of Signature’s earlier productions in the season including Gypsy and Miss Saigon—has book and lyrics by German dramatist Bertolt Brecht and music by Composer Kurt Weill. As a piece of musical comedy and satire, the production is heavily influenced by jazz (conducted by by Music Director Gabriele Mangiante), and, several of its songs may be well-known as jazz standards, including “Mack The Knife,” which has been covered by Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin and more. The piece has enjoyed runs both on and off Broadway, including a production in 2006 by Roundabout Theatre Company which starred Alan Cumming as Macheath and Cyndi Lauper as Jenny.

Focusing on a clash between the haves and the have-nots intermixed with the antiheroic adventures of the criminal Macheath, Threepenny Opera is the ultimate criticism of capitalism and inequality—themes that Director Gardiner notes are still as relevant as ever: “We live in a world of inequality. There is no question about that. The gap between the haves and the have-nots has never been wider in America. Because of that, Weill and Brecht’s scathing satire feels as relevant today as it ever has, and MacDonald and Sam’s adaptation of this classic piece retells the tale of Macheath for a modern audience in a truly thrilling and immediate way.”

Donna Migliaccio and Bobby Smith. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Donna Migliaccio and Bobby Smith. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Scene-stealers for the evening include Natascia Diaz as Jenny, who masterfully plays a scorned woman who was previously romantic involved with the antihero Macheath. Her rendition of “The Flick Knife Song” sent chills down my spine, and her masterful and precise acting matches seamlessly the sharp and cunning character that she embodies.

Erin Driscoll as Polly Peachum, a woman who marries Mack after only knowing him for five days, similarly elevates the show. Her soprano voice is perfect for the role, singing more well-known pieces like “Pirate Jenny” with ease and finesse. Driscoll captures the absurdity of the role while simultaneously showcasing the artistic integrity of the work.

Her performance of “Barbara Song” in Act I—about her coming to sexual enlightenment and losing her virginity—showcases the dynamics of Driscoll’s acting ability; she begins the song as an innocent girl who “keeps her head held high,” but ends it in proud exclamations about how she would be “mad to tell him ‘no’!” The range and depth of emotions she is able to convey in a single song is remarkable.

Rick Hammerly in drag as the Macheath’s very pregnant former flame Lucy Brown is also a hit. His portrayal of a sassy and self-righteous Lucy Brown perfectly complements Erin’s neurotic portrayal of Polly, creating a tension between the two characters that provides great comedic relief in an otherwise serious act. Their rendition of “Jealousy Duet” is one of the hits of Act II as the two scorned women duel it out over their man in hilarious fashion.

Donna Migliaccio as Mrs. Peachum and Bobby Smith as Mr. Peachum are similarly a joy to watch on stage. Mrs. Peachum—the archetypal overprotecting mother who helps to run the family business—and Mr. Peachum—the controller of all the beggars in London—are portrayed in a way that is at once satirical and, yet, relatable. Mrs. Peachum, who hilariously snaps a photo on her iPhone of her daughter and her daughter’s husband when he is about to killed, and Mr. Peachum, whose bizarre struggle to arouse pity is the core of his business, carefully walk the line between musical comedy and total farce—giving the context necessary to underscore the ultimate message of the satire. Their hilarious duet of “Kids Today”—a parody of the trials and tribulations of parenthood—brought the audience to laughter as Mr. and Mrs. Peachum scoffed at their daughter’s desire to “prefer love” and “misbehave, instead of saving for a rainy day.”

Mitchell Jarvis as Macheath—London’s greatest and most notorious criminal—plays the puzzling antihero in a way that holds the audience’s attention and builds suspense until the finale number. His acting paints a realistic portrait of a man that everyone wants to trust but nobody should trust, and this tricky characterization is one that Jarvis crafts masterfully. Unsure of whether to pity or scorn him, this depiction makes the performance all the more mysterious. His final cries as he is about to be hanged in the song entitled “A Call From The Grace” is a true eleven o’clock number: Jarvis’ portrayal of a criminal’s madness, outrage, and, oddly enough, pride on death row is jarring. The powerful delivery of the lyrics: “a voice is calling to you from the tomb/a cry of agony, a cry of rage/a muffled scream in a padded room”—is haunting and attests to the power of Jarvis’ acting ability.

Erin Driscoll and Rick Hammerly. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Erin Driscoll and Rick Hammerly. Photo by Margot Schulman.

This mesmerizing and epic production of The Threepenny Opera is unlike anything I’ve seen Signature produce so far. You might even recognize its influence on later pieces of musical theatre like Urinetown and Cabaret. Be sure to check out the “audacious musical that started it all” before it closes on June 1st.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

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The Threepenny Opera plays through June 1, 2014 at Signature Theatre —4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, Virginia. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.

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2 Responses to ‘The Threepenny Opera’ at Signature Theatre

  1. Mike May 3, 2014 at 7:58 am #

    “The audience was hooked” ???? At the performance which I attended, there were all too many empty seats after intermission. Personally I enjoyed the musical and thought the cast was terrific. However, this is NOT a musical which has wide appeal so readers should bear that in mind.

    • Joel Markowitz
      Joel Markowitz May 4, 2014 at 12:52 am #

      Remember Mike: You saw a different performance than Derek did and you saw that performance with a different audience than Derek did so you can say what happened at your performance but you can’t criticize what Derek and his audience saw and/or how they reacted to their performance. Reviewers can only report on the performance they see. Readers need to remember that.