It seems odd that Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s musical Marxist manifesto “The Threepenny Opera” still is relevant after its premiere in Berlin more than 80 years ago.
Yet, after the past three years of upheaval in the world’s financial markets, the authors’ quintessential question, “Who’s the bigger crook, the bank robber or the person who founds a bank?” seems like an appropriate inquiry.
New Surry Theatre’s production of the musical doesn’t really answer that question, but, in an extremely entertaining way, it does illustrate how each segment of society exploits the one beneath it. “The Threepenny Opera” also points out how easily corruption can fester from a tiny speck into a huge organism, devouring everything in its path, even love.
On the surface, the musical is the story of the thwarted love between con man Macheath and Polly Peachum, the daughter of the couple who run a band of thieves and pickpockets in London’s West End at the turn of the last century. Director Shari John has mined the show for every ounce of irony. Although not every member of her cast is up to the task of illuminating the layers of meaning Brecht and Weill wove into their plot, she does sculpt some very fine performances with her community players.
Robin Jones as J.J. Peachum and Annie Poole as his wife, Celia Peachum, are delightful. Together, they become the engine that drives the production and creates the energy that keeps the audience intrigued. Jones is especially fine at showing the cogs in Mr. Peachum’s head a-turning as he plots and schemes simply because it’s fun. Though they bicker and battle like magpies, Jones and Poole vividly reveal the banked passion of the couple’s youth.
Christopher Candage’s Macheath is disappointingly dull. He and Kateri Valliere as Polly have almost no spark at all. While Candage’s voice is more than up to the role, he is unable to portray Mack the Knife’s charming and smarmy dual nature. This gives Kateri Valliere as Polly Peachum almost nothing to play off. Her lovely voice evokes all the emotion the character feels, but Candage’s portrayal makes it impossible for the audience to see that this young couple easily could turn into her parents.
“Pirate Jenny,” like “Mack the Knife,” is a show-stopping number. For theatergoers used to big finishes just before intermission, “Pirate Jenny” seems out of place in the middle of the Act 1. Nan Lincoln’s incredibly evocative performance of the number, however, does stop the show cold. As the arts editor of the Bar Harbor Times, Lincoln most often sits in the audience. Her memorable portrayal in “The Threepenny Opera” could signal a career shift for the journalist.
The three-piece band, under the direction of Abigail Greene, comes close to sounding like the 15-piece orchestra Weill envisioned for the show. The recent installation of risers on the second floor of the Blue Hill Town Hall have improved sight-lines tremendously and transformed a space, which often felt like an ill-equipped small auditorium, into what feels more like a real theater. The positive impact of this renovation cannot be overstated.
Theatergoers should be prepared to be confronted by cast members as they enter the theater. Vagabonds and street urchins will be persistent in their quests to secure a few pennies and the more experienced, confident performers might get downright aggressive in their insults and banter.
Eventually, police officers do appear to shoo them away but the onslaught of urchins could be irritating for unprepared audience members. Despite a couple of disappointing performances, “The Threepenny Opera” is worth running the beggars’ gantlet.