A 'Threepenny Opera' without a sense of urgency

'Threepenny Opera' at A Noise Within: Strong teamwork, too little sense of urgency. A review

Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's musical play “The Threepenny Opera” was famously mounted in 1945 Berlin just after the war. 

A contemporary account noted that the makeshift staging featured gaunt performers – some just released from concentration camps – and the redolence of unexcavated corpses, still trapped beneath the rubble of the burnt-out and roofless theater.

Of course, it would be nearly impossible to emulate the psychic punch of that occasion. Yet any successful "Threepenny" should, at the very least, pierce the armor of the audience's complacency.

Unfortunately, in their current staging of Michael Feingold's translation at A Noise Within, co-directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott never quite balance the play's music hall flamboyance with the requisite sense of apocalyptic urgency. 

Based on John Gay's 18th century picaresque, “Threepenny” revolves around the fortunes – and misfortunes – of central character Macheath (capable Andrew Ableson), a master criminal whose exploits with the whores and skells of Victorian London are the stuff of legend.

When Macheath elopes with lovely Polly Peachum (Marisa Duchowny), he incites the ire of Polly's parents (Elliott and Deborah Strang, a tried, true and funny team), the prosperous king and queen of the city's beggars “union,” who collude in Macheath's undoing.

Various have-nots, clad in Angela Balogh Calin's imaginatively ragtag costumes, roam the precincts of Frederica Nascimento's utilitarian set, which has been virtuosically lit by Ken Booth.

As is typical with this company, the cast consists of consummately polished professionals. Duchowny delivers the most spectacular turn as Polly, whose delectable spun sugar appearance conceals steeliness forged in the mean streets.

Yet for all the show’s sturm, drang and vivid coloration, an essential something is lacking – that certain whiff, drifting up through the floorboards, of subterranean horrors.

"The Threepenny Opera,” A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. Various dates in repertory. Ends May 9. $40 and up. (626) 356-3100 or www.anoisewithin.org. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

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