Playwright: Kurt Weill ( music ) , Bertolt Brecht ( book and lyrics ) . At: The Hypocrites at Steppenwolf Reskin Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted. Phone: 312-335-1650; $20-$25. Runs through: Oct. 12. Photo by Margaret K. Lakin
Director Sean Graney and The Hypocrites—borrowing heavily on House Theatre personnel—present a big, ambitious and creative production of this famous but rarely-seen 1927 musical work by Brecht and Weill, which hasn't been produced professionally in Chicago in over a decade. It's dramatically and musically challenging, in part because the principal characters are unpleasant to equal degrees, and because Brecht shifts focus between them so often.
Set during the coronation of Queen Victoria ( 1837 London ) , The Threepenny Opera spoofs conventions of opera and sentimental drama while offering caustic comment on capitalist corruption among high officials and lowlife gangs. There are several excellent and accurate translations of the German original, but The Hypocrites use composer Marc Blitzstein's rather free 1953 adaptation. It's retrograde but it's the most familiar English version around ( 'Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear' Blitzstein translated the Ballad of Mack the Knife, here silkily intoned by Alex Balestrieri ) .
The Hypocrites give Threepenny a bold and highly visual physical production ( Lee Keenan, scenic; Maggie Fullilove-Nugent, lighting ) , with the audience seated along two walls of a square at least 80 feet on a side. An upright piano—the only musical instrument—sits dead center flanked by two curving free-form tables, each about 40 feet long and seating 20 audience members. The large cast ( 18 ) performs upon and around these tables, and in all corners of the square. Graney and choreographers Tommy Rapley ( dance ) and Matt Hawkins ( fight ) keep the troupe in almost constant motion, sometimes running in a pack. The colorful, clown-like costumes ( Alison Siple ) suggest many times and social stations but definitely are urban and European/American. The venue's concrete walls are draped in canvas teaming with urban graffiti ( Corey Pejza, artist ) . No question, it's a visual wow.
But scale and acoustics also create problems: 15 people thundering across a wooden floor buries dialogue and music ( especially in Act I ) . Even with Michael Griggs's intelligent sound design, words are lost when performers are far off, and sometimes shouting singers lose melody lines as they struggle to hear the piano while negotiating Weill's devilishly tricky chromatics. Graney makes physical demands of his players that a veteran musical theater director would avoid and Actors Equity probably would forbid.Read more story below....
It's engaging nonetheless, although Graney, too, hasn't decided where to place emphasis beyond the clear political message. A charismatic Macheath—musically, the largest role—can steal the show but Gregory Hardigan is capable rather than charismatic. The always droll Sara Sevigny extracts comedy from Mrs. Peachum, but Graney doesn't give comedy full sway. Macheath's women—Polly ( Jennifer Coombs ) , Lucy ( Lise 'Kat' Evans ) and Jenny ( Vanessa Greenway ) —stand out with their signature songs ( thank Weill more than Brecht ) but hardly have fulfilling dramatic roles.
This aggressive production reveals the show's challenges with such imagination that one wishes it had conquered them all. FYI: Pianist Timothy Splain is superb.