Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2000
I just love “The Threepenny Opera” but the only way I could sit through the nearly three hours of this production was to keep thinking about which nice Kurt Weill number was coming up next. There are people who should not direct Threepenny, and Malcolm Ewen should now be added to that list.
When I was in my late teens I bought a recording of “The Threepenny Opera” at a tag sale. The recording was in German, and I don’t understand a word of German, but I was immediately drawn to Weill’s music and listened to the record over and over and over. It helped that the notes on the record jacket were in English, but still I couldn’t have translated a single word of the libretto for you.
Then I purchased a recording of the Marc Blitzstein 1954 English version. And my first reaction on hearing it was “This is a lousy translation!” Without truly understanding a word of what I had been hearing in German, I instinctively knew that it wasn’t the same thing as what I was hearing in English. And the dead give-away was the Cannon Song. It is clearly about cannons and the word cannon does not occur in Blitzstein’s lyrics.
In 1976 I had the great good fortune to attend the production of Threepenny at Lincoln Center with Raul Julia as Macheath (be still my heart!) which used the (then new) translation by Ralph Manheim and John Willett. It is a much “rougher” (read dirtier and meaner) translation, and I have always considered it a more accurate one. In it the cannon song is about cannons.
It had never really occurred to me to ask which translation they were staging at Weston. I saw the title of the show and booked tickets because I would travel to the ends of the earth to see The Threepenny Opera. I was surprised and disappointed to arrive at the theatre and discover they were staging the Blitzstein translation. But my jaw literally dropped when they got to the chorus of the Cannon Song and sang “Let’s all go ‘barmy’, live off the army” I had forgotten! I had forgotten that horrible rhyme, that dreadful translation! Oh dear, oh dear!
And that sort of sums up the evening. Oh dear, oh dear! There were a few things that didn’t make me cringe in horror or gape in awe of their awfulness, but mostly it was an evening of Oh dear, Oh dear! As one husband said to his wife as they exited the theatre “Don’t ever do that to me again!”
The pity is that Weston has assembled a very talented cast and put them on a handsome and fascinating set in costumes that range from “Wow!” to “Huh?” (Why, oh why, was Tiger Brown dressed as Sir Joseph Porter KCB??) There was no reason they couldn’t have produced a fine production of Threepenny, but they completely failed.
Starting with Jim Weaver playing the Street Singer as Ben Vereen in “Pippin” and continuing through Macheath (Timothy Gulan)’s embarrassing Broadway style rendition of the Ballad of the Easy Life and Karen Oster’s bizarre take on the character of Jenny, and on to Mrs. Peachum (Judy Baird)’s screeching through the Second Threepenny Finale, this was a show with plenty to cringe at. But every now and then there was something wonderful. Gulan could really sing, as could Marcy Harriel as Polly and Charma Ward Bonnano as Lucy. Ward Bonnano, atoning for the sins of her husband playing the police commissioner in that ridiculous naval uniform, sang the hell out of the Barbara Song, and then did a nice turn on the Jealousy Duet with Harriel. She really perked up a show that, frankly, was soporific throughout.
Here is some advice for Ewen. The Threepenny Opera is not an American musical comedy and it should never be staged like one. It is not American, it is not a musical (its an opera), and it is not a comedy. Do not stage the Blitzstein translation. It is not 1954 any more and people would rather have their sordid plays full force rather than spoon fed.
In closing, my usual complaint about a production of Threepenny is that the guy playing Macheath is no Raul Julia. Considering that I worship the late, great Raul Julia, it is expecting a little much asking every actor who takes on this role to fill his giant shoes, but I will give Gulan credit for having some vague understanding that Macheath’s power and attraction has something to do with sex. Gee, here’s a man with two wives and at least as many mistresses about whom is sung the Ballad of Sexual Dependency…wonder what makes him tick? Gulan was no Raul Julia, but at least he had some balls, which is step in the right direction.
The Threepenny Opera runs through August 5 at the Weston Playhouse. The show runs two hours and three quarters and contains adult language and situations. For tickets and information call the Weston box office at 802-824-5288.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2000