Created in 1928, “The Threepenny Opera” is what might be called “in-your-face” theater. It’s big, bawdy and charged with the anger and attitude of angry, disenfranchised people, as timely as images from Cairo.
In Brecht’s book, the underdogs are the petty thieves, beggars and prostitutes of London. UCSD’s production is a colorful one, with scenic designer Ian Wallace’s red light district cribs fully lining the walls. They are as many as five tiers high, festooned with ladders, a spiral staircase and a hangman’s noose for the execution of Macheath, a.k.a. Mack the Knife (Zachary Harrison).
Macheath has taken as his mock-wedding bride Polly Peachum (Taylor Shurte). Polly, the daughter of JJ and Celia Peachum (Zachary Martens and Jennifer Putney) is virtuous when it suits her. Having divided London into districts, JJ and Celia run a commune of beggars, whom they instruct and outfit, and from whom they profit. Macheath is a notorious criminal with a gang of comically inept henchmen. He is pursued by Tiger Brown (Mark Christine), a crooked lawman, and immediately after bedding, Polly must go on the lam. However, he can’t resist Thursday night with his No. 1 whore, Jenny Diver (Anne Stella). Also on the scene is Macheath’s knocked up “wife,” Lucy Brown (Megan Robinson).
Production of this piece allows MFA student director Jeffrey Wienkowski, along with his MFA creative team and student actors, to design and perform an iconic work that is so full of itself and was mined by musical creators since (think “Cabaret,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Les Miserables”).
If it has a flaw, the UCSD production is too busy (something constantly draws the eye from the action that moves the piece forward), but that is also part of its attraction. Purple and orange dominate Elisa Bezoni’s amusing costumes (she puts Macheath in a purple wide whale pinstripe suit, dark red fedora and orange vest). David Corsello solves sound challenges, and Sarah Cogan lights the goings-on cogently.
UCSD MFA theater students are not selected for their singing prowess. “The Threepenny Opera” is not simple musically. While simultaneously creating his own theatrical style (the great Lotte Lenya, Weill’s wife, was the original Jenny), Weill parodied George Frideric Handel, writing complex harmonies, vocal lines and ensembles. Not all the MFA students are adept musically and stylistically; and that is the point, they are learning and we are benefiting. Best performances musically are that of Martens as Peachum and Regan Linton as a wheelchair-traveling street singer, who introduces the show and the final ensemble with the hit tune, “Ballad of Mack the Knife.”
Music is in the capable hands of Mark Danisovszky, a multi-instrumentalist and an experienced Weill interpreter. Heidi Wienkowski assists in numerous seamless ways.
“The Threepenny Opera” continues at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Feb. 3-5, at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, UCSD Theatre District. Tickets are $15-$20 at the box office prior to performance. Information is available at theatre.ucsd.edu/season or by calling (858) 534-4574.