Friday, March 31, 2006

The Threepenny Opera

Despite being in a fair amount of physical pain last night, I wasn't going to miss Threepenny Opera at Studio 54. I can't say I was necessarily blown away, but this was also my introduction to the work, and I probably would have appreciated it more having known the source material ahead of time. That said, I still left the theater with the general feeling that it was weird but kinda wonderful. And reading up on the work by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill — which has a colorful 78-year history and was itself based on an 18th century satirical opera — has given me more of an appreciation for it.

The star performances were great. It was fun to finally see Alan Cumming live, after hearing so much about his performance as the emcee in Cabaret (on the very same stage, in fact). The New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" item made much about the fact that he's bulked up for this part, but I found his "Macheath" (aka Mackie/Mack the Knife) to be a close cousin to the emcee, especially with the bisexual overtones and the casting of one of his flames, Lucy, as a transvestite. Singer-songwriter Nellie McKay makes a really impressive Broadway debut as Polly, and Cyndi Lauper, with exaggerated Queens accent in full force, mixes a bit of her '80s music-video persona with her more recent foray into songbook standards and cabaret-style singing for her role as Jenny. Both sing as well as you might expect, but it was a bit disconcerting to see Lauper forget some of her lines during "Solomon Song" last night. (With any luck, she'll have it cleaned up by opening.) The real revelation for me was learning that Ana Gasteyer of SNL fame can really belt, something Chicago theater fans would be more likely to know, from her run as Elphaba in the production of Wicked there.

The quirks of this show — including the opening up of the fourth wall, the emphasis on the unreality of the staged spectacle, the intrusion of on-stage announcements for each scene, and the LCD opera-supertitle readout that makes selective appearances throughout the action — are not necessarily anything new for contemporary audiences who are used to seeing such arguably postmodern techniques used as a matter of course. But they made a lot more sense to me after reading about Brecht's "epic theater" theory, in which the audience is encouraged to use reason instead of emotion as they track the action of a play, and the use of "alienation" is intended to force viewers away from tendencies to get lost in the action, so to speak, or suspend disbelief and fall for the characters, no matter their worth.

My main problem with this style of drama, however, is that it's often hard to tell when the show's being satirical and when it's being didactic. And while the show has its funny moments, it's not like the audience was going crazy with laughter the whole way through either. I have to admit I couldn't quite make out all the lyrics, but that's something I'm more likely to blame on sitting in one of the very last seats in the house than on the performers themselves.

Still, a lot of themes were clear: society's hypocritical treatment of the poor (including petty criminals and beggars) as well as the way striving and reaching for status changes people or makes people act funny in relative ways. There's a healthy chunk of anti-corporate rhetoric (long before it was in vogue), which no doubt dovetails with Brecht's Marxist leanings. This latest production features a congo line of performers wearing corporate logos across their shirts (Apple, Target, Williams & Sonoma, Yves Saint Laurent, to name a few), but I thought it came off as kind of cheesy — in the same way as the "Sony!" shoutout grated (albiet in a different context) near the end of the recent production of Pacific Overtures. (Tangential thoughts: Is it easier to make corporate jokes, whether effective or not, when you're a nonprofit theater like Roundabout? Also, is it a coincidence that Isaac Mizrahi designed the costumes and happened to throw in a Target logo?)

Even if you're inclined to agree with the sentiments, that logo moment is just not as effective or funny as Mack's later monologue about the dismal future prospects for "men who work with their hands," who — to paraphrase Wallace Shawn's very good but generally very R-rated new translation — use modest crowbars to open modest-sized cash registers to steal modest amounts of money. "Why rob a bank when you can found one?" is the oft-repeated line.

As this post gets longer and longer, I think it proves that the show is thought-provoking and worth seeing, even if it doesn't quite sweep you away with an escapist musical theater experience, like The Light in the Piazza, for instance, or even Sweeney Todd, which — while it also peers in at a seedy side of old London — doesn't make such an effort to assertively distract you from its more spine-tingling moments. I don't think I'll ruin it for you by saying that after the show is over, the audience claps, the cast marches off stage through the auditorium, and the supertitle screen reads "Go Home!"

Lastly: No, I didn't have any celebrity sightings last night, like Sarah did, when she saw the show. (Ethan Hawke borrows lighter, forgets to give it back. A few days later, his office burns. Coincidence?)

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