No wonder, theatrically speaking, that The Threepenny Opera takes three hours to perform. It's remarkably too much, being a precursor of the modern thinking person's musical, a non-polemical Marxist critique of capitalist values, and a historical-psychological snapshot of European apprehension between the two world wars.
It requires a large cast, so it's rarely staged by professional companies. What a treat then that its 23 roles are being skillfully performed by 20 members of the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA Programs in Acting and Directing, classes of 2011 and 2012.
First staged in Berlin in 1928, it was written by Bertolt Brecht and composed by Kurt Weill, based on John Gay's 18th-century The Beggar's Opera. Capturing the zeitgeist so well, the musical promptly became popular throughout Europe in numerous translations.
This production is directed with thoughtful precision and impressive dynamism by Kristan Seemel, with ensemble activity around the singers exciting or calming the atmosphere as appropriate.
The show quickly establishes its dark mood with the one song everybody knows, "Mack the Knife," sung by a balladeer (Jamey Grisham) who doubles as one of the ragged denizens. Macheath (Richard Williams) is a petty thief with the style of a crime lord, slithering through shadows in an ankle-length black leather coat.
There is someone lording it over the criminals, though: Mr. Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, Esq. (Chris Berry), runs a protection racket, training beggars and assigning them to areas around London and getting half of their take for assurance that the police won't nab them. A funny early scene presents a kind of runway show in which he describes the four basic outfits and personalities for beggars, from happy cripple to threatening molester.
The rest of the Peachum family consists of his wife Celia (Zarina Shea) and daughter Polly (Jaselyn Blanchard), currently Macheath's favorite girlfriend. She thinks he is hers exclusively, and he goes so far as to have his thief gang help them cele-brate a lackadaisical "wedding" in which no vows are exchanged. Polly gets to sing the second-darkest song of the musical, "Pirate Jenny," a fantasy of repressed proletariats in which a seemingly harmless, floor-scrubbing serving girl is actually a pirate queen who can have the heads of all the condescending hotel guests. But Blanchard is a charming and lovely ingénue, too sweet to find her inner murderess in the vicious song.
The Peachum trio is a contentious lot, but they are in basic existential accord, declaring in the Act One finale song: "The world is poor and man's a shit/And that is all there is to it!" Brecht had an unflinching world view, and The Threepenny Opera keeps turning different facets to us with such ditties as "Song of the Insufficiency of Human Struggling" and "Ballad of Sexual Dependency."
Meanwhile, Polly's father senses that at least hanky-panky is going on and gets to work bringing about Macheath's downfall. That could be difficult, since Macheath is an old army buddy of police chief Tiger Brown (Vichet Chum). They share a grim and jolly recollection of their soldiering in "Cannon Song," in which encountering men "whose skins are black or yellow" results in chopping them "into beefsteak tartare."