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threepenny opera


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saw it tonight. get your tix before it opens - it's a limited run and already fairly booked. and it's worth the while. i remember with great pleasure the 1976 version with raul julia and ellen greene and while that will still be a hallowed and revered production, it won't be alone in the annals of threepennydom. this is so out there. excellent cast, great design, and a translation by wally shawn that is fabulous. it was the dress reh tonight and i'm sure all will continue to congeal etc but it's wild. it runs a thin line between brilliance, camp and just plain theatrical but the tightrope walk is compelling to say the least. cyndi lauper? c'mon down. alan cummings, nellie mckay, ana gasteyer, jim dale.....entertaining, political, refreshing - and around the corner from yakitori totto. is there more?

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I saw the Broadway version back in '88 starring Sting (!?) and being singularly unimpressed. ThreePenny Opera is a tough one, but any rock star thinks he can do it.

 

I was skeptical when I saw the ad with Alan Cumming in it, but you give it a thumbs up huh? Can you give more details on what you particularly liked?

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It's now in previews and we went this afternoon. I liked it more than Ginny, but she's a more critical audience than I am. We both agree that the acting is great -- this is an unbelievably good cast -- but she isnt fond of Shawn's book. It does drag at times. All in all, I think we'd both highly recommend it, but hope that the preview month will serve to sharpen it up before the 4/20 opening.

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  • 2 months later...

I did my best to make a non-political post about the DADA exhibition, but writing about Brecht on Broadway without violating a guideline really is going to be like tiptoeing through the tulips. I will do my best.

 

Let's be absolutely frank about the thinking behind this show. It is a straightforward vehicle for Alan Cumming to repeat his Cabaret hit, along with the edgy story, plenty of sex and gender confusion, post- Chicago costumes and post-Bob Fosse semi-choreography. Is it any more than that?

 

With the qualification that everyone is miked at high volume throughout, it's probably the most talented ensemble I have ever seen in a musical. The amount of talent packed into this show is staggering, and anyone who cares about musical theater should see it for Jim Dale alone. And if Jim Dale wasn't in it, you should see it for Nellie McKay.

 

That said, the show doesn't really work. It can't. It is not a Broadway musical. That it is not a Broadway musical is an understatement. It would have been an attack on Broadway musicals, had Brecht not had more serious targets in mind. I had the impression it drove the audience nuts: it's episodic, it frequently drags, the parts of the best performers have not been expanded (Jim Dale isn't on-stage nearly as much as the audience would like). The one hit song ("Mack the Knife") is thrown away before you've switched off your cellphone, and never reprised. As for the humor, it's an odd experience to find yourself the only (or almost the only) person in a packed theater laughing. :)

 

The underlying problem, however, is the show's theme. The audience hopes and wishes and tries to believe that the shows theme is how a cheeky, bisexual Scottish scallywag of a rapist and murderer can win your heart. It's not, of course. When Cumming inserts a reference to the gay marriage cause, he receives an ovation. We can safely assume this was not on Brecht's mind. When, however, he gets around to the points Brecht wants to make - in MacHeath's gallows soliloquy and the final chorus - the audience goes quiet and starts shifting around on its collective buttocks and looking for the exit.

 

Yes you can do dark themes in Broadway musicals. Sondheim is often dark. Carousel is dark, when stripped of sentiment. Cabaret is not all a bowl of cherries. But I don't think you can do Brecht's theme, which is absolutely unambiguous - not unless it is heavily wrapped in whimsy (Finian's Rainbow) or post-modern irony. To the cast's credit, they don't stop and wink - they deliver it straight, and have the courage even not to return for a curtain call. But the audience isn't buying.

 

Again, Jim Dale is astonishing. For those who don't know him, he was one of a string of British musical comedy leads who entranced Broadway audiences in their youth - Tommy Steele, Michael Crawford, Richard Lindsay. I was so lucky to see Anthony Newley in cabaret before he died. I last saw Jim Dale at the London Palladium when I was in short pants, and thank god I saw him again. The real thing. His physical comedy alone is unbelievable. One odd moment - his Mr Peachum has a punky spiked hairdo, and when he says "I want to creatre chaos in the streets of London," one suddenly knows what John Lydon will look and sound like in his sixties. :)

 

Nellie McKay is breathtaking. Beautiful, great voice, and very, very funny. Cyndi Lauper is excellent. Alan Cumming - well I always want to pick him up and give him a slap, because I picked him as a straight actor of huge potential many years ago, when I didn't even know he wasn't a - well - straight actor. I wish he would stop playing a cartoon version of himself and play more roles. His performance begins on a high peak of camp hamminess, but descends to a more appropriate level in the second half.

 

See it if you can.

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Good review. By the way, I was wrong and Ginny now says that she hated it and cant recommend it (although she agrees about the acting/singing being great). Just one thing: although I loved Cindi L in the role, I couldnt help thinking that Marianne Faithful would have been even better.

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Thanks. Glad someone read it. :)

 

Marianne Faithful - pushing incredulity a little further still as Alan Cumming's lover, though. I could stand hearing Cyndi (or indeed Marianne F.) sing a set of Kurt Weill songs.

 

Adding: I just looked up Nellie McKay. 21 years old! Phenomenal prospect.

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Get the M.Faithful CD "Blazing Away" from her Bklyn St. Ann's concert (I was there). What a voice. One of my closest friends is Cindi's road manager/producer, but Faithful's voice is even better suited to this material. Rough, course & more in tune with the content.

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I'd never seen a production of Threepenny Opera before and so I had no baseline against which to judge the production. As I recall this one was a new translation and there has been some controversey as to whether it captures Brecht's intent. I enjoyed it, although I'd be interested in seeing a different production so I could do a comparison.

 

As for Ms. McKay, I agree that she's tremendously talented but I found her mini-bio in Playbill to be, um, unusual.

 

NELLIE MCKAY (Polly Peachum). In 2004, Nellie McKay released her double album, Get Away From Me, to critical acclaim (Columbia Records). Nellie has since appeared on numerous television and radio shows, toured the world and participated in benefits for groups ranging from Planned Parenthood to Fair Fund to the ACLU and the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary. In addition to working on television and film projects, Nellie has also been active in supporting get-out-the-vote efforts and the campaign to close Columbia University’s primate laboratories. She encourages everyone to go to vegetarianstarterkit.com to help eradicate starvation, pollution, animal suffering, heart disease and cancer. Her second album, Pretty Little Head, is coming soon to a record store near you.

Nellie, come talk to me when you're 40.

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I saw the old girl at Summerstage a few years ago. Terrific set - mixed the cabaret and torch songs with full-on rock and roll.

 

I wish someone would book Jim Dale into Feirstein's or the Oak Room for a month. :)

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Ginny and I wound up re-discussing the play and she reminded me that it was an "updating" of "The Beggar's Opera" & that we have a theater poster of the production she did in the early '70s of this play hanging on her bathroom wall. From her perspective, being very well acquainted with it, the original material was far better. So I Wikipedia'd it and found:

 

"It (Beggar's Opera) was written in 1728 by John Gay, and the music was arranged by Johann Christoph Pepusch. The play... also deals with social inequity on a broad scale, primarily through the comparison of low-class thieves and whores with their aristocratic and bourgeoise "betters." It is the first, and only successful example of the ballad opera, although it is an ancestor of the plays of Richard Brinsley Sheridan and eventually Gilbert and Sullivan.

 

The original idea of the opera came from Jonathan Swift, who wrote to Alexander Pope on August 30, 1716 asking "...what think you, of a Newgate pastoral among the thieves and whores there?" Their friend, Gay, decided that it would be a comedy rather than a pastoral. It became his greatest success.

 

Exactly 200 years later, in 1928, Bertolt Brecht (words) and Kurt Weill (music) wrote a musical based on The Beggar's Opera titled The Threepenny Opera. It was also adapted, in a non-musical form, by Czech playwright/president Václav Havel in 1975....

 

The intent of the play is clearly to remind those in high place that corruption at their level leads to corruption and suffering throughout society".

 

Without going into the realm of "large P" politics (and risking the wrath of the current crop of Admins.), Ginny's point was that this production of Threepenny, with Wallace Shawn's book, never gets its theme (either early 1920s specific or any possible parallel to current society :) ) through to the audience and relies too much on crass dialogue instead. With the great acting talent present here, that's the shame.

 

We both wish we saw Richard Foreman's version in the '90s as we're sure he must've done better with it.

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