It would be nice, perhaps, to get a little entertainment with our alienation. But there's not much to be found at Studio 54 where the Roundabout Theatre Company opened a strenuous, slow-moving revival of Bertolt Brecht- Kurt Weill's "The Threepenny Opera" on Thursday.
Things are kind of a drag -and not only because of frequent cast cross-dressing, most prominently by an actor named Brian Charles Rooney who plays the love-struck Lucy Brown. At one point, Rooney literally flaunts all his credentials in what could be the season's most unnecessary moment of overexposure.
But then excess seems to be the hallmark of this lengthy (nearly three hours), misguided production, with a coarse new translation by Wallace Shawn. The evening is under the guidance of director Scott Elliott who already has had one hit, "Abigail's Party," and one miss, "Barefoot in the Park," this season. Put "Threepenny" in the latter category.
The musical possesses one of those hypnotic scores, raw, jazzy melodies by Weill that unnerve as much as they satisfy. And Brecht's biting, bracing book, based on John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera," tells the scabrous tale of lowlifes in Victorian England as it rails against the capitalisticsystem and the oppression of the common man.
If there's a concept for this scattered production, it seems to have eluded the director and the performers. Even the set and costume designs are all over the map. Modern neon lights announce the musical's various locales.
The costumes, designed by Isaac Mizrahi, are eclectic, ranging from late 19th-century garb to outfits that would not have been out of place during Studio 54's disco days.
The actors seem to be stylistically playing in different shows. Some, most notably the marvelous Jim Dale, are better than others. The actor, too infrequently seen on stage, portrays Mr. Peachum, the opportunistic leader of the Soho underworld. His virginal daughter, Polly, marries the notorious criminal Mack the Knife, and Peachum is out to get Mack.
Dale has things down exactly right. Physically, he looks like a macabre vaudevillian, a creepy marionette who never stops moving. And verbally, he handles the often tongue-twisting lyrics and dialogue with ease. It's a magnetic performance.
The same can't be said for Alan Cumming's take on Mack the Knife, the musical's pivotal character. Sporting a Mohawk haircut and wearing basic black, the actor, while creepy and sexually provocative, doesn't register on the Richter scale of menace. He's provocateur-lite.
Ana Gasteyer, as Mrs. Peachum, seems to be channeling Carmela Soprano from the popular HBO television series and her strident singing voice often sounds seriously overmiked.
Nellie McKay's Polly finds another vocal role model, at least in her speaking voice: Judy Garland in "The Wizard of Oz." It's a bit disconcerting but the young woman does have a definite stage presence that could translate beyond her pop-music career.
A campy yet unfunny Cyndi Lauper, on the other hand, is largely wasted in the role of Pirate Jenny, the woman who sells out Mack to the authorities.
But then Elliott's staging is practically wit-free. The book's black humor disappears into a black hole of obviousness. Only in one scene, when Lucy Brown tries to poison her rival, Polly, with a large, roiling glass of gin, do laughs make an appearance.
Broadway's last revival of this classic show, the 1989 version starring Sting as a colorless Mack the Knife, was equally difficult to sit through. This "Threepenny" continues that depressing tradition.
Among the forgotten achievements of the Third Reich was the destruction of every recording of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's "The Threepenny Opera," a great tribute to how unsettling their art was.
Had the original 1928 production been as listless and numbing as the revival Scott Elliott has directed at Studio 54 -with a cast including Alan Cumming, Jim Dale, Ana Gasteyer, Cyndi Lauper and Nellie McKay - the work would have been quickly forgotten, and the Nazis could have concentrated their energies on their other projects.
The main reason "Threepenny" has survived is Welll's score, especially "Mack the Knife." One of the few worthwhile things about this revival is that it retains his orchestrations, which still, 80 years later, sound remarkably fresh.
The melodies themselves are often muffled because the lyrics, in a new translation by Wallace Shawn, are so clumsy and ill-fitting. Shawn has also made the spoken text unusually crude.
Brecht's story of the lack of honor among thieves, presumably a parable of capitalism, had a brashness but also a tongue-in-cheek tone that balanced its orthodox Marxism.
Shawn's translation might have been shocking in, say, 1968, but its potty-language dramaturgy is merely tiresome.
A few performers manage to brighten the grim proceedings. Despite his spiked hair, which makes him look like an R. Crumb character, Dale gives his ruthless character a lively music-hall charm. As his daughter, McKay projects an unexpected innocence, though she throws away the great "Pirate Jenny" song. Why Lauper wanted to do the show is a mystery, and she adds nothing to "Mack the Knife" or the more interesting "Solomon Song."
Cumming plays the hero Macheath, dipping into his standard bag of tricks for the umpteenth time. Gasteyer has a solid voice but plays her part on one strident note.
Isaac Mizrahi's costumes enhance the cartoon quality of the evening. Looney Tunes used to last seven minutes.
This seems interminable.
You have all these stars - Alan Cumming, Cyndi Lauper, Jim Dale, Ana Gasteyer - and a classic Bertolt Brecht play with incredible music by Kurt Weill.
So you'd think Roundabout Theatre's production of "The Threepenny Opera," which opened last night at Studio 54, would be absolutely foolproof. Well, not quite.
Director Scott Elliott obviously decided to go for broke in making the production as authentically Brechtian as he could, even having Wallace Shawn prepare a new and gritty version of the original German text by Brecht and Elizabeth Hauptmann.
But authentic is as authentic does, and in "The Threepenny Opera," authenticity can come at an awesome price: a touch of boredom.
Mind you, just a touch. Weill's music, the most insidiously seductive sounds the 20th century ever heard, would carry the recitation of real estate ads, especially if read by Dale, who can entrance millions by reading "Harry Potter."
Brecht, alas, hasn't weathered the years as well. His theories of alienation - making sure the audience is constantly aware that it is watching theater - no longer fascinate, while his Marxian politics now sound appallingly simplistic.
As Lotte Lenya, Weill's wife and inimitable interpreter, later put it, Weill himself tired of "setting the Communist manifesto to music." It was a point well made.
It was the great Lenya who starred in the original 1928 Berlin production, and it was Lenya again who played Jenny (this time round it's an adorably blowzy Lauper) in composer Marc Blitzstein's famous off-Broadway adaptation in 1954.
This time it's certainly a plus that the original Weill orchestrations are used (although Blitzstein's were pretty faithful) and we have more of the music than in any other New York production.
And unfortunately, much more of the Brecht, which Shawn has vividly adapted in an intellectually justifiable attempt to translate the 1928/1954 shock value to 2006, with a sexual explicitness and scatological frankness that far outdistances the original.
Elliott has also applied his own individual concept of Brechtian acting on his unfortunate cast.
Some survive better than others. Cumming's gangster-pimp Mack the Knife, probably the original anti-hero, has a sardonic grace, a Scots accent that for the first time makes sense of the "Mac" in Macheath, and a singing voice that is fair enough except when Elliott prevails upon him, against Weill's express intentions, to shout.
In a misguided attempt to add a special "Brechtian" touch, Eiliott has cast Lucy, one of the two warring ladies fighting over Mack, as a man in drag - exposing his never particularly secret virility presumably for shock value.
Brecht, something of a puritan, would doubtless have told Elliott to wash his mouth out, but the actor in question, Brian Charles Rooney, does very well in the circumstances, offering a performance the late Charles Ludlam might have applauded.
As Polly Peachum - the other lady in quest of Mack - Nellie McKay is charming in a gaga fashion, but is permitted to perform as if she were auditioning for "The Sound of Music."
Which brings us to the three possible reasons to see this weirdly misconceived production: Lauper as the forlorn whore Jenny, and Dale and Gasteyer as Mr. and Mrs. Peachum, Polly's parents -the criminal masterminds of Brecht's Victorian London.
Lauper, who gets to sing the opening number "Mack the Knife," which is normally given to a character simply called The Ballad Singer, seems perfect in this sleazy milieu and sings with a plaintive, Piaf-like chirpiness.
Gasteyer acts in a rigid style, presumably on instruction, but belts out her big number, "The Ballad of the Overwhelming Power of Sex," with undaunted vigor.
But the performance of the night - and surely one of the performances of the season -is 70-year-old Jim Dale as Mr. Peachum.
Drawing upon his six years of ballet training, his beginnings in English vaudeville, his years with Britain's National Theatre, and his even more years as a Broadway star, Dale, nimble, graceful, vulgar and funny, shows the world - and probably even the misguided Elliott - just what "The Threepenny Opera" is all about
Perhaps he should just do it as a solo act.
And you thought those crazy, hazy nights when Studio 54 sizzled were strictly a thing of the past. Think again, disco boys and girls. Why right now — on the very spot where Halston, Liza, Bianca and Andy once held sybaritic court — you can watch the same kinds of revels they might have witnessed in the 1970's, thanks to the shrill, numbing revival of "The Threepenny Opera" that opened at the theater at Studio 54 last night.
Cross-dressed men and women in writhing sexual pretzels; leather boys and glitter queens vacuuming up piles of snow with their nostrils; strobe lights, neon lights and, yes, disco-ball lights. There's even a bare-chested hunk in a gold lamé bathing suit who arrives on a flying golden horse, summoning sweet memories of that fab birthday party for Bianca. (Or was it Liz?) All of this is once again on tap via the Roundabout Theater Company.
There's one big difference: nobody in the current incarnation of those days of swine and poses seems to be having any fun. This is one party where the hangover begins almost as soon as the evening does.
Almost two and a half years after the Roundabout's canny cash cow of a revival of "Cabaret" closed at Studio 54 (after more than five years in residence), the company is again inviting theatergoers to come to the cabaret, old chum. This time the occasion is Scott Elliott's production of the 1928 show that made musicals like "Cabaret" and "Chicago" possible: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's "Threepenny Opera" is the granddaddy of all the singing, stinging portraits of fat societies on their eves of destruction.
Mr. Elliott has even recruited one of the stars of the Roundabout "Cabaret," Alan Cumming, who won a Tony playing the ghoulish M.C. in the Kander-Ebb musical and who here portrays the murdering, whoring, stealing Macheath (Mac the Knife), the prince of thieves in stinking, corrupt London. But while it raises the kink quotient even higher than "Cabaret" did, this production has nothing like the same sustained point of view that might hook and hypnotize audiences. With Mr. Elliott overseeing a cast jam-packed with misused talent (including the pop stars Cyndi Lauper and Nellie McKay), this "Threepenny" takes Brecht's notion of the theater of alienation to new self-defeating extremes.
Created in the era in which "Cabaret" was set, "The Threepenny Opera" remains the most famous and popular example of what Brecht called "epic theater." Inspired by John Gay's rollicking "Beggar's Opera" (1728), "Threepenny" translated the tale of the villainous but irresistible Macheath and his marauders into the age of Queen Victoria. But the show's real satiric targets were the middle classes of poverty-crippled, rudderless Germany in the 1920's.
Using deliberately artificial techniques — painted signs, scene-setting titles, spoken asides and musical-hall songs that often had little to do with the immediate plot — the play was designed to sustain an intellectual distance, to allow audiences to see their own reflections in vicious thugs, whores, beggars and policemen motivated by the same primal needs and instincts as themselves. The music, Brecht wrote, was meant to become "an active collaborator in the stripping bare of the middle-class corpus of ideas."
An immediate, scandalous hit in Europe, "Threepenny" failed to generate the same frissons when it first arrived in New York in 1933. Writing of its Broadway premiere in The New York Times, Lewis Nichols described it as "a gently mad evening in the theater for those who like their spades in the usual nomenclature of the earnest." It wasn't until the fabled Off Broadway revival at the Theater de Lys in 1954 — with Weill's widow, Lotte Lenya, as the prostitute Jenny — that "Threepenny" achieved popular success in Manhattan.
That production used a translation by Marc Blitzstein that is probably still the best-known English version but is regarded by purists as a softened and sanitized interpretation. Certainly no such complaints can be lodged against the new translation by the playwright Wallace Shawn, whose rendering is both more densely lyrical (with some cumbersome poetic tropes in the songs) and explicitly obscene than any I know. This is a show that doesn't hesitate to call sexual organs and acts by their most common names, loudly and repeatedly.
In the same spirit Mr. Elliott has chosen to make full use of a freedom from censorship that Brecht could only have envied. So in this version Macheath's love interests include not only the usual component of female whores (most notably Ms. Lauper as Jenny), but also their male counterparts.
Macheath again finds himself torn between two brides: the demi-virginal Polly Peachum (Ms. McKay) and Lucy Brown (Brian Charles Rooney). But in this case Lucy is a man, who makes a point of showing the audience exactly what lies beneath his skirt. Macheath's friendship with Tiger Brown (Christopher Innvar), Lucy's father and the chief of police, is of the crotch-grabbing, kissing kind. And for a copulatory free-for-all brothel sequence, the participants' underwear glows luridly beneath a black light. (Jason Lyons did the lighting, which allows for Brechtian signage to be writ in neon and L.C.D. supertitles.)
Isaac Mizrahi created the costumes here, in a smorgasbord of salacious styles, from a cleavage-flashing Chanel-style suit to the "Blue Angel"-style chanteuse get-ups worn by Ms. Lauper. Most of the clothes, plucked from racks on Derek McLane's naked it's-only-a-play set, suggest that their wearers have just come from frolicking in the back room of a leather bar. This includes Mr. Cumming's Macheath, who trades in the character's usual gentlemanly suit and bowler for a punkish ensemble and a Mohawk.
The performances are just as widely varied and as bereft of character-defining purpose. Everything seems done for isolated shock effect, without any regard to how one stylistic component might relate to another, so it's impossible to intuit exactly what society is being skewered.
Looking like Dietrich and sounding like a Brooklyn Piaf, Ms. Lauper delivers Jenny's ballads with teary, soulful intensity. She also leads, in Lenya-like style, the show's famous prologue, "Song of the Extraordinary Crimes of Mac the Knife." That marvelous trouper Jim Dale plays Mr. Peachum, Polly's father and the head of a vast network of beggars, in the seedy music-hall style of Laurence Olivier in "The Entertainer." As his wife, Ana Gasteyer talks like a shrill Scarsdale matron and sings penetratingly in a voice of a hundred trumpets.
Mr. Cumming brings much conviction and agony to Macheath's songs of the oppressed in the prison and hanging scenes. But there's little sense of the menacing charisma that keeps all of London atremble.
Ms. McKay, the inventive and seriously talented young singer-songwriter ("Get Away From Me"), comes closest to achieving a Brechtian effect. Clad in trailing pre-Raphaelite bridal white, her Polly speaks and sings with a flat, deadpan sincerity that suggests sugary blandness can accommodate a multitude of sins. It's a brave, carefully thought-out performance, though its willful affectlessness means that songs like "Pirate Jenny" (restored to Polly here, as in the original version) have no chance of being showstoppers.
The only songs delivered at full throttle are those that tell the audience members how rotten they are: "Certain Things Make Our Life Impossible," "How Do Humans Live?," "Cry From the Grave." But in presenting Brecht's lowlifes as exotic, feckless party animals instead of as pseudo-bourgeois materialists, Mr. Elliott keeps these characters at more of a distance from us than Brecht surely ever intended. Their censoriousness registers as just a random dip in a pharmaceutically induced roller coaster of moods. Another line of cocaine or two, and these hedonists will forget all about the poor and hungry.
Brecht, where is thy sting?
The 1989 Broadway production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's musical masterpiece The Threepenny Opera had it, literally, with a capital S. Sting's performance as that ne'er-do-well Macheath wasn't embraced by all critics. But I'll wager the biggest naysayers would recall the rock star's run fondly if asked to compare it with the version that just landed, with a thud, at Studio 54.
The Roundabout Theatre Company's staging of Threepenny (* ½ out of four), which opened Thursday, looks intriguing on paper. Director Scott Elliott has shown his flair for socially charged material, and Alan Cumming exuded a witty sensuality and menace in Roundabout's Cabaret that would seem to bode well for Macheath.
There's even a fresh pair of pop singers: rebellious troubadour Nellie McKay as rebellious ingenue Polly Peachum, and Cyndi Lauper as Jenny, Mack's not-quite-true love.
When stirred together, though, the ingredients add up to a mess. Elliott and translator Wallace Shawn try really hard to make Brecht's ferocious material newly subversive, but their four-letter words and gender-bending touches merely seem gratuitous and silly.
Cumming is neither as threatening nor as thrilling as he was on his romp through Weimar Berlin. He's not particularly androgynous, either, though he does canoodle with a few guys - among them Brian Charles Rooney, who for added shock value is cast as Lucy Brown. Rooney's screeching performance, like a lot of bad camp, is funny for about 20 seconds.
McKay fares better at first, though her mock-bright demureness grows tedious. By the end of the first act, she sounds as if she's reciting fiction for National Public Radio. Lauper delivers her usual strong voice and New Yawk accent, which hardly seems out of place here, since each character seems to come from a different city. I counted four different dialects in the Peachum household alone, two be- longing to Ana Gasteyer's overwrought Mrs. Peachum.
The show's brightest spot is Jim Dale's nimble Mr. Peachum. Otherwise, this Threepenny is a pretty dull piece of change.
Timing is everything. While any time is ostensibly the right time for "The Threepenny Opera," the enterprise has been trumped this season by an exemplary application of Brechtian staging principles to depict a society rotten to the core in Broadway's riveting reinvention of "Sweeney Todd." Even without the stiff competition, however, the landmark Brecht-Weill musical would be a botched job this time around, directed and adapted with sledgehammer subtlety by Scott Elliott and Wallace Shawn, respectively. While the cast is game and talented, the production is sunk by its one-note sleaziness and puerile provocation. Forget alienation effect, this is just plain off-putting.
Given that it clobbers you over the head with surfaced subtext for nearly three hours, the show should come with a migraine warning. Elliott has taken his cue from the decadent past of the Studio 54 venue, piling on enough gutter glamour and chic perversion to animate a whole summer of gay circuit parties, plus a touring company or two of "The Rocky Horror Show."
The deeply misguided, disco-dancing finale -- with a muscle-boy royal messenger descending in gold hot pants and glitter boots on a neon horse to liberate Macheath -- might tickle the coke-addled ghosts haunting the legendary temple of debauchery. But it won't soothe the spirit of Bertolt Brecht.
The fundamental flaw here is that the material itself becomes secondary to the director's imprint on it. In Brecht's anticapitalist play -- as in John Gay's 18th-century "The Beggar's Opera," on which it was based -- the distinctions are blurred between bourgeois society, with its corrupt, wealthy power brokers, and the criminal underworld of pimps, whores, cut-throats and thieves. Elliott blunts the satire by stridently accentuating the low-life depravity while neglecting to summon any real menace.
Some of the staging is effective. The "beggars" enter from the audience onto a naked stage, plucking costumes from racks and applying makeup during the overture. Jenny (Cyndi Lauper), the prostitute former lover of outlaw Macheath (Alan Cumming), begins the "Moritat" (here titled "Song of the Extraordinary Crimes of Mac the Knife") unaccompanied, before being joined by the ensemble in a gruesome kickline under a jumble of multicolored neon identifying the play's locations.
But things get bogged down immediately thereafter with the book scenes, which generally are flat and tedious. Shawn's jokey adaptation trivializes the play into a lurid burlesque without texture, alternating moments of vaudeville and British music hall with sketch comedy and belabored illustrations of current relevance.
Warmongering gets a look in with a sing-along "Army Song" in which "new recruits learn to hate different cultures"; the recasting as a transvestite of Lucy Brown (Brian Charles Rooney), bisexual bigamist Macheath's secret bride, allows for a nod to gay marriage; and, worst of all, consumer culture is ham-handedly lampooned in "The Ballad of the Happy Life," when Macheath is joined by a chorus emblazoned with corporate brand names. Trailing them is that mascot of greed, Mrs. Peachum (Ana Gasteyer), here trussed up in a tarty faux-Chanel suit and Ivana Trump hairdo.
Shawn's vulgarized lyrics (it becomes numbingly predictable that "China" will be rhymed with "vagina," and "pluck" will beget "fuck") lack the poetry and storytelling flow of, say, Marc Blitzstein's translation. As always, Weill's dissonant score remains the show's chief enticement; the composer's original orchestrations are vigorously played by a 10-member ensemble led by music director Kevin Stites.
Vocally, too, "Threepenny" is well served. Stepping in after Edie Falco dropped out due to "Sopranos" commitments, Lauper betrays a hint of impersonation in her Weimar warbling, but the pop diva knows how to command an audience in a song, which makes up for her slightly stiff acting. Her lovely, rueful take on "Solomon Song" benefits enormously from the simple staging. Likewise her betrayal tango with Macheath, "The Ballad of the Pimp," one of the few places where Aszure Barton's Fosse-macabre choreography doesn't look mannered.
The Mohawk-coiffed Cumming can play sinister, lewd charm in his sleep, and the inevitable comparisons with his thrilling Emcee turn in "Cabaret" on the same stage a few years back make his casting less interesting. He too readily indulges the production's tendency toward crotch-thrusting excess, so there's nothing chilling about his winking Macheath as he courts the audience's complicity. Cumming is best in back-to-back numbers near the close of the show, summoning bitter intensity when his survival is threatened in "Call From the Grave" and "The Ballad in Which Macheath Asks Everyone's Forgiveness."
Jim Dale brings wily vaudevillian humor to the unscrupulous Mr. Peachum, particularly in the jaunty "Song of Inadequacy of Human Striving." As his venal wife, Gasteyer's powerhouse pipes, coupled with her shrill comic characterization, become a little wearing. Doing distaff duty with smirking aplomb, Rooney displays a fine soprano on "The Jealousy Duet" and "Lucy's Aria," sung in German.
The real surprise is singer-songwriter Nellie McKay, a genuinely odd and appealing stage presence who seems to have time-traveled in from another era. Dressed in dusty, corpse-bride white, and with her fresh-faced looks, dreamy eccentricity and sing-song dialogue delivery, McKay is an arresting match for Macheath's young wife, Polly Peachum. She gets the balance of naivety and cunning just right, and her savvy spin on "Pirate Jenny" and "The 'No' Song" places them among the production's better numbers.
Costumer Isaac Mizrahi appears to be channeling Vivienne Westwood with a dash of Versace. But the outre goth/punk fetishism of the outfits (Carlos Leon's platform thigh boots and vinyl microshorts being the most over the top) feels more like an attention-grabbing Halloween dress-up stunt than a seriously subversive interpretation of the material. That flash-trash aspect pretty much echoes Elliott's skin-deep investigation overall.