Review: ‘The Three Penny Opera’ at George Mason University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts (CVPA)

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Building top-notch musical theater at George Mason University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts (CVPA) continues with its current snappy, sharp, nicely nasty production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Three Penny Opera.

Director Ken Elston.  Photo courtesy of the artist.
Director Ken Elston. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Directed by Ken Elston (with Jessica Dubish and Stephanie Risch) the production is very much in keeping with its 1928 roots. It is an alive and vibrant “opera for beggars” with a glowing sheen pumped through with the terrific musical direction of Stan Engebretson. Engebretson brings a confident nine-member (ranging from accordions, saxophones, and pianos) Mason School of Music orchestra to perform the wonderfully dissonant and harmonic twists of European dance band music from the last century.

For those who know The Three Penny Opera from its many productions over the decades, the Mason production changed its location and some dialogue. According to Elston’s program notes, the production was set, “on the eve of the mayoral inauguration of Jimmy Walker, in gritty 1926 New York. Corruption abounds.”

But the central power of The Three Penny Opera remains. It is a musical, “that assumes that society’s values have degenerated toward an adoration of money, status and success over character and contributions.” noted Elston. It is a most cynical world chock-full of hunger for power, violence with plenty of femme fatales.

With a cast of about two dozen with named roles and an additional ensemble the overall production is quite a feat as everyone moves about the large Center for the Arts stage with well-rehearsed, hit their marks, clock-work. And remember these are college student performers ranging from freshmen to seniors who had less than six-weeks to learn and perfect their work.

So, some highlights: As the center of Three Penny Opera’s malevolence is Dylan Toms as Macheth, old Mack-the-Knife himself. From the moment he steps into view with white gloves, white spats, and an altogether dapper mien, who gives off shivers with his smooth, slick sneering performance. His solos and duets are spot-on; he has taken in Brecht and Weill into himself and seems delighted.

Cast members of 'The Three Penny Opera." Photo by Lou Mazzatento.
Cast members of ‘The Three Penny Opera.” Photo by Lou Mazzatento.

Marijke Boers, as the Ballad singer, well delivers the song everyone knows, “Ballad of Mack the Knife.” She has a mocking confident air with her intonations amplified by her physical carriage. As Mr. and Mrs. Peacham, head of the city’s beggars “union,” Keenan Gibson and Liz Carlson add nice comic flair to their singing and acting performances.

As Polly Peacham, Kathleen West not only has a marvelous soprano voice, but she shows off a veneer of innocence that covers a young woman who herself is quite skilled with sharp objects both verbal and physical. She will not be toyed with by anyone, either her parents or her husband Macheath learns as she sings “Pirate Jenny.”

Allison Gryder shows her hard-nose as Lucy Brown a woman who Macheath has tried to jilt. In “Jealousy Duet” there is a no-holds duet that she sings with West that is marvelously executed in a complete back-and-forth drumline and harmony.

Tips of the hat as well to the singing chops of Angelica Miguel (Jenny Diver) and performers such as Stephanie Risch (Filch) and Garvey Dobbins (Tiger Brown).

The many other performers are delightful as they perform various characters that fill the stage with pop. They add edgy expressionistic visual mass and movement to the production. They also perform as inanimate objects, a lapdog, as well as silhouetting expressionistic dances and other nicely accomplished work.

High kudos to set and costumes by GMU professor Howard Vincent Kurtz  and lighting designer Autum Casey. Their creative work put the audience centered into the show’s menace.

Challenging as it is, The Three Penny Opera is performed with aplomb by GMU/CVPA with a stylish manner. The themes of the musical are certainly mature indeed including sexual violence and the aftermath of war. The production is easily up to the challenge. Please be aware, the entire performance with a short intermission ran a bit over three hours the night I saw it.

The current American political and cultural tumult with its anti-heros is not unnoticed by these GM/CVPA performers. In her program notes, Dramaturg Tara Smith wrote: “The Three Penny Opera will not only bring a jazzy well-loved musical to the Fairfax Community, it will also encourage discussion on what is right, what is wrong, and who is really to blame.”

And it all starts with a masterfully constructed “V” as the actors make their way deliberately to center stage lit with a film-noir touch that accentuates their ghostly make-up and dark maroon lip-stick. Nice, very nice indeed.

Running Time: Three hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission. 

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The Three Penny Opera plays through  November 5, 2016, at Mason’s School of Theater and School of Music, performing at The George Mason Center for the Arts’ Concert Hall – 4400 University Drive, in Fairfax, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 993-2787, or purchase them online.