Swimming with sharks

The Wilbury Group's 'Threepenny Opera'
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  May 29, 2013

 theater_3penny_top.jpg
AMORAL ANTIHERO Tessier as Macheath. [Photo by Brian Gagnon]

Despite its scathing critique of the excesses of capitalism, The Threepenny Opera has fascinated even investment bankers since its creation in 1928. Perhaps especially investment bankers, seeing that it centers around a dark "hero" with the morals of an alley cat and the luck of one with nine lives.

The Wilbury Group is presenting a jaunty staging of the musical (through June 8). Directing is Josh Short, with music direction by David Tessier.

With music by Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht adapted John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, which was written exactly 200 years before to contrast the overwrought style of Italian opera with popular melodies and accessible characters. Brecht's Marxist identification was right in tune with such a departure from traditional expectations.

With the London of the original updated to the Victorian period, we are immersed among denizens of the criminal class. Mackie Messer (David Tessier) is known better as Macheath and best as "Mack the Knife," and we hear the familiar ballad about him as the story begins ("Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear/And he shows them pearly white"). His girlfriend is Polly Peachum (Christine Dickinson), and he must be serious about her, because her father couldn't be much more dangerous.

Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum (Tom Gleadow) is a criminal kingpin, exploiting the beggars of London, who can't ask for or filch a farthing without his permission and hefty cut. The mustachio-twirling evils of capitalism extend down to the dregs of society, Brecht is pointing out. Polly hadn't returned home the previous night, and Peachum assumes, accurately, that she has been with Macheath. Furious that his property has been tampered with, he decides to destroy the young man.

There are some powerful songs here, and their worrisome concerns are exemplified by "How Do Humans Live," which goes on to explain: "By eating humans" (the one titled "The Song of Inadequacy of Human Striving" is a close second in the race toward nihilism). Characters as well as ideas are clarified, as "Polly's Song" establishes her dismal self-worth and Macheath and the sheriff glorify bloodlust in "Cannon Song."

For the most part, the principal characters pop out in this production, propelled by strong performances. Gleadow leads the pack, rocketing forth a wily Mr. Peachum who could head a tinpot dictatorship, never mind an army of beggars. Flapping along out of breath in his jetstream, Phyllis Lynne's Mrs. Peachum is a worthy, mean-eyed helpmate. Tessier's Macheath shows the strength of character and savvy of a man who, knowing he's a rascal, accepts rascality and even betrayal from others. Unfortunately, Dickinson is miscast as the pretty Polly Peachum, sometimes hinting at a soured innocence but not at all the cynical darkness necessary to turn the powerful thematic centerpiece "Pirate Jenny" into a spine-chilling narrative of the seething fury of mistreated menial workers.

Fringe characters fortify the underworld atmospherics. There is corrupt Sheriff Jackie "Tiger" Brown (Brien Lang), an old schoolmate of Macheath who has remained a friend, until it proves inconvenient. There are assorted lowlife minions and Macheath's prostitute sweethearts, such as Lucy Brown (Katie Travers), who pretends to be pregnant to trap him, and Jenny (Karen Carpenter). The latter is a poignant presence at the very opening, beginning a mournful a cappella "The Ballad of Mack the Knife" that is continued by the rest of the company, scattered from balcony to background, as the six-piece orchestra joins in.

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