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Theater Review: Music steals the show

Since its debut in Berlin in 1928, "The Threepenny Opera," Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's groundbreaking, razor-edged protest against societal corruption and religious hypocrisy, has never lost its relevance. Giving it the grittiness and gut punch it needs for that relevance to hit home is the challenge. With uneven intensity, A Noise Within's production, running through May 17, doesn't quite get there, but it often comes close.

Based on "The Beggar's Opera" by 18th-century playwright John Gay, and directed by Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, "Threepenny" is a natural fit for A Noise Within, whose signature brand of classical repertory theater has grown to embrace the larger-scale works it couldn't do in its old Glendale digs.

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The story: In Victorian London's underworld, not-so-innocent Polly Peachum (Marisa Duchowny), flouts her parents' wishes, and marries arch-criminal Macheath (Andrew Ableson) in a suspect ceremony attended by Macheath's gang and his old pal, corrupt police chief Tiger Brown (Jeremy Rabb). When Macheath's amatory exploits and the Mr. and Mrs. Peachums' machinations finally land him in jail, he is set to hang for his crimes. Mr. Peachum, meanwhile, plans to disrupt Queen Victoria's impending coronation with his army of beggars.

Here, on A Noise Within's expansive stage, the production (using the Michael Feingold English translation) takes shape as the audience arrives. The actors wander into view, donning period costume pieces to become beggars, thieves and harlots. Geoff Elliott and Deborah Strang, as the Peachums, those models of pious hypocrisy, transform themselves with fat suits. It's quite a sight.

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Throughout the show, cast members will move scaffolding, set pieces and props as Frederica Nascimento's fluid set design captures the deliberately ragtag, makeshift surroundings. (A life-sized portrait of a horse plays a surprisingly key role in the proceedings, and Ken Booth's lighting adds a sense of atmospheric confinement; Robert Oriol is credited as the show's sound consultant.)

The leisurely pace of these preparations ends resoundingly with the "Ballad of Mack the Knife," a stunning opening that signals that Weill's provocative musical soundscape, in all its dark dissonance and uneasy cheer, is in good hands. This cast, and the superlative orchestra led by DeReau K. Farrar, clearly have the musical chops to deliver.

Yet, while performances by the company of pros are deft in this mix of haunting drama and black comedy, the actors' challenging, fourth-wall-breaking harangues directed to the audience lack visceral effect, and, in contrast to the outstanding musical numbers, pacing at time seems to lag.

This is in part because there is a tad too much emotional remove in the company's exhortations that "all humans live by doing wrong … all humans live by being rotten" and the sardonic view that crime should pay because life itself ("a cold dark place where sorrow cries all day") is its own punishment.

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It is due, too, to Ableson's contradictory portrayal of amoral Macheath. His choice to play the deadly scourge of London with a low-key, almost boyish demeanor lacks a discernible sense of underlying menace, contributing to the show's periodic flagging dynamism… until Ableson sings and Macheath's arresting authority and dark notes emerge full force. (Ableson layers his performance much more deeply later in the script, when, betrayed by friends, followers and lovers, Macheath realizes that he can no longer manipulate his way out of impending doom.)

Elliott's Mr. Peachum, preying on London's populace as the clandestine, iron-fisted "Beggar King," and Strang's tippling, vindictive Mrs. Peachum are well-matched comic horrors. As Polly, coy in virginal white, toting a baby doll for good measure (Angela Balogh Calin's costumes have the right tattered and tawdry touch), petite Duchowny gives a knockout performance, mixing sugary sweetness with steel and sensuality. Her rendition of "Pirate Jenny" is a chilling highlight.

Stasha Surdyke as prostitute Jenny Diver and Maegan McConnell as Lucy Brown, the daughter of police chief Tiger, offer notable performances and vocals as well; Brown in particular hits her role's comic notes with relish.

(In keeping with this repertory season's theme of sociopolitical revolution, A Noise Within is offering audiences the opportunity to see back-to-back productions of "The Threepenny Opera" and Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" [opening March 28] on the same day, in special matinee and evening performances on April 12, 25 or May 2.)

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What: “The Threepenny Opera”

Where: A Noise Within, 3352 Foothill Blvd., Pasadena

When: Repertory schedule: 8 p.m. March 13, April 3, 11, 24 and 25, May 16; 2 and 7 p.m. March 15; 7:30 p.m. April 2, 23; 2 p.m. April 12, 18, May 2, 17; 7 p.m. May 3; 2 and 8 p.m. May 9. Ends May 17.

Tickets: From $40

More info: (626) 356-3100, Ext. 1; www.anoisewithin.org

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LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.

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