Looks can be deceiving.
Co-directed by Michael Haverty (the company’s co-artistic director) and Bryan Mercer (who also serves as the show’s musical director), 7 Stages’ production of “The Threepenny Opera” has been designed with a visual style that’s entirely appropriate to the material.
In the striking black-and-white costumes of DeeDee Chmielewski, the stark lighting of Rebecca Makus and a lot of heightened makeup — and also featuring live video feeds and scratchy prerecorded projections akin to an old silent movie — it effectively conjures the German expressionist cinema of the 1920s and ’30s, which is when the iconic Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill “play with music” premiered (in 1928 Berlin).
Set in the seedy underworld of Victorian-era London and revolving around the criminal exploits of a philandering scoundrel named Macheath (dynamically embodied by Aaron Strand), “The Threepenny Opera” is a far cry from the fluffier musical revues of the period, a bold example of “epic theater” intended as a political commentary about some of the social and economic agitation of its time.
Beneath the evocative surface, however, this 7 Stages version muddles and botches most of those loftier pursuits, playing them in the vein of a Three Stooges or a Keystone Kops comedy as much as anything else, more like a nonsensical gimmick than an anarchic expose. It isn’t the best sign that one of the show’s major characters, Mrs. Peachum, is here portrayed in grimacing drag by the actor Don Finney.
The timeless relevance or contemporary resonance of the piece — the “parallels to our modern life,” as Haverty refers to it in his program notes — is basically nonexistent (never mind existential): In a second-act solo that Macheath performs from a prison cell (“Ballad of the Pleasant Life”), Strand seems to offer a fleeting nod to Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock,” but that’s about it.
Strand is a fine musical talent, and so is Stephanie Lloyd as Polly, the most virtuous of his sexual conquests, whose lovely singing voice distinguishes several of her own solos (including the well-known “Pirate Jenny”).
Accompanied by Jed Drummond (on piano) and Nicolette Emanuelle (on accordion and drums), both of whom also play smaller roles in the story, many of the songs lack polish and clarity, despite being entrusted to such capable singers as Jessica De Maria and Dorothy V. Bell-Polk (as a pair of Macheath’s other paramours). Regrettably, Emanuelle mainly garbles the famous signature tune, “Mack the Knife.”
The unmistakable highlight among the production numbers is the “First Threepenny Finale” that closes Act 1, featuring Lloyd, Finney and Kevin Stillwell (as her parents) brandishing marvelously illuminated umbrellas.
Then again, like the rest of the show, the moment is noteworthy on a purely stylistic level rather than on a very substantive one.
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