Saturday, November 4, 2017

Butler University launches a new musical-theater initiative with "The Threepenny Opera"

Buddies across the legal divide: Macheath (Isaiah Moore) and Tiger Brown (Reily Crouse)
A famous piece explicitly formed by adaptation is properly subject to further adaptation. Thus, the modifications that audiences at Butler University's production of "The Threepenny Opera" encounter don't fall into the category of "director's opera," in which stipulated settings for the works of Verdi and Wagner, for instance, are sometimes radically altered.

In one sense, then, the famous collaboration of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill is always a director's opera whenever it is staged. And so William Fisher's stamp on this production is necessarily embedded in its presentation of the translation by Robert Macdonald (with lyrics spunkily rendered in English by Jeremy Sams).

Despite that excellence, I was reminded mainly through James Caraher's conducting of the Indianapolis Opera production of four years ago how pungent and essential Kurt Weill's music is. Caraher's animating presence for the Butler production imparts extra vivacity and dependable  support to the singers from the mostly student band.

With such vivid renditions of Weill's music as this one, it's probably true that John Gay's "Beggar's Opera," the 18th-century progenitor of the Brecht-Weill classic, lives today primarily through productions of the 1928 work of Brecht, Weill, and German-language adapter Elisabeth Hauptmann. Theater historians tell us, however, that Gay's original has held its own to a degree (George Washington, no less, was a fan), and "The Threepenny Opera" has often been disdained in comparison.

The Schrott Center for the Performing Arts is a fine place for such a production, with stage dimensions suitable to the Brecht manner of presentation: non-realistic, wedded to a vaudeville-style rendering of song and dialogue. The onstage band, behind Rob Koharchik's dark, iron-framed set of stairways and platforms (with a jail cell on the lower level present as needed), takes cues from the actors. The troupe, with stage-manager assistance, reorients the set as needed between scenes.

Fisher's direction emphasizes mugging and gestures directed toward the audience — a reminder of the "alienation effect" that Brecht pursued in order to blur the line between art and propaganda. The movement goes into and out of what is usually regarded as theater's "fourth wall."  We aren't to take these characters and their circumstances as separate from our world, in particular its inequality and unmet social needs.  Accordingly, the coronation in the background of the original here becomes a presidential inauguration, probably the most recent one.

That change is among several that is awkward at least in part, for the teeming metropolis in which this "Threepenny Opera" takes place is New York, not Washington, D.C. A gang of homeless street people on Manhattan streets on Inauguration Day, as threatened by the "beggar king" Peachum, would pose no embarrassment to the powerful in the nation's capital. Similarly, much of the lyrics and dialogue is Americanized, with a few ghosts of the English setting, such as references to the King, to men being "randy," and to an unwanted baby being disposed of "in the loo."

This potpourri of references aside, the production is assuredly better off not needing a dialect coach, an amenity that seemed to be lacking in the 2013 Indianapolis production. The urban underworld has a certain universality, after all, though no one cites it whenever "the brotherhood of man" is extolled. As a Communist, Brecht thought that point was particularly worth emphasizing.

With Glenn Williams as the slinky narrator guiding the story, the cast enacts the conflicts among the low-lifes, with the establishment represented by top cop "Tiger" Brown, played with a zesty ambiguity between "bromance" and bi-curiosity by Reily Crouse as a corrupt policeman thoroughly compromised by his affection for Macheath. The protagonist was played and sung by Isaiah Moore with a wealth of outsized expressions, especially in the songs. Though his ferocity with members of his gang was hard to believe at first, the character's manipulative selfishness and improvised suavity came through in a big way. Facing death near the end, this Macheath is both frightened and contemptuous before his delightfully staged and deliberately improbable rescue.

I must also cite the well-displayed venality and desperate self-centeredness of the Peachum family: As the paterfamilias and proprietor of a beggar-outfitting shop, Mike McClellan thundered his critique of the world he strives to succeed in in song after song, his diction and projection first-rate. "The Cannon Song," the scabrous duet with Macheath recalling their old army days, was riveting. His duets with Natalie Fischer as the sly, resentful Mrs. Peachum were among the show's highlights. When they sing slightingly of the romantic effect of "the moon over Soho," the reference neatly applies to both the London and the New York settings ("SoHo" being the decades-old designation of the Manhattan artist area "south of Houston Street").

Emma Summers struggled to project her voice at times, but her characterization of Polly triumphed in dialogue and song alike. Elizabeth Duis played her bitter rival Lucy Brown, and their interaction in duet and dialogue was scintillating, though the fast pace of the "Jealousy Duet" nearly threw them off-course. Mary Hensel as the prostitute ringleader Jenny made a particularly strong impression with her gory portrait-indictment of Macheath in the show's best-known number, the much-covered song known as "Mack the Knife." American pop singers have turned it into a celebration, but in context, the song resonates  alarmingly well in its implied challenge to  every modern society's chosen narrative of success and virtue.

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