Banned in Berlin in 1933, "The Threepenny Opera" celebrates whores, thugs, beggars, thieves -- and their worthy compatriots, the powers that be. Kurt Weill's saturnine score and Bertolt Brecht's biting libretto, adapted to the English language by Marc Blitzstein, make for a deliciously dirty journey to the soft and rotting core.
The Off the Circle Theater Company's cabaret revival tries gamely to swallow whole this masterwork of musical satire. While not completely successful, the attempt is worthwhile: a competent production of a difficult piece of theater.
Far from your typical high-dollar opera, the "Threepenny" cuts to shreds all notions of grandeur and wryly rubs our noses in the gutters of Victorian London, where, as one song has it, "The World Is Mean."
The story concerns the dandified gangleader Macheath, a.k.a. Mack the Knife, and his ill-advised marriage to Polly Peachum, daughter of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, a.k.a. The Beggars' Big Brother. Peachum tries to thwart the union, and Mack to thwart the thwarter, by using the services of the corrupt commissioner of police.
Betrayed by a favorite hooker and thrown into Newgate Prison, Macheath anti- heroically struggles to evade his just desserts -- i.e. the gallows -- against a tide of faithless friends, unreliable underlings, loveless lovers and conniving wives (it turns out that he's got two.) In the end, "The Threepenny Opera" shows that every man and woman has his or her price, and it's pretty low.
A challenge for any production is striking and keeping a darkly droll tone, and this one in the main succeeds. Wayne Anderson brings both viciousness and endearing vulnerability to the role of Macheath, while Robert Redlinger is bracingly bitter as Peachum. Tonette Hartmann plays Polly as a fallen ingenue on her way to becoming a hard woman, and Sarah Pleydell Walton's "Pirate Jenny" is a whore with a heart of steel.
But the acting from the rest of the cast is not so reliable. For instance, Gregory Ford is convincing enough as a street singer, especially when playing accordion, but is too blandly agreeable as police commisssioner, the other role he takes.
The singing, meanwhile, is uneven. A composer of Weill's gifts and originality -- he wrote, after all, the great "Mack the Knife" -- demands some powerful musicianship. That comes regularly only from the instrumental accompanists, while Hartmann, Ford, Redlinger and Anderson project adequately but not memorably.
The narrow stage in Columbia Station, fronting tight rows of tables between two big pillars, is well-suited to Brecht and Weill's theme of meanness, and director Fredric Lee makes good use -- and even a deft joke -- of the room. At one point, an actor playing a thief relieves some patrons of their dinner table. THE THREEPENNY OPERA -- At Columbia Station Cabaret through August 28.