The biting satire of the play notwithstanding, the final joke of The Threepenny Opera seems to be on the authors. For their work is going the way of all universally accepted satire: it is becoming bland and there is little that can be done to reverse the trend. However much the actors try to squeeze out all the spleen in the play, the audience insists on ignoring them and converting Brecht and Weill into Lerner and Loewe.
On stage, Captain Macheath and Mrs. Peachum can scream bitter words to sneering music; but in the audience a dentist will tap his feet and hum along gaily. "This is as good as My Fair Lady," he whispers to his plump wife. "It's better," she answers; "it's more modern."
During the intermission one hears more praise. The songs are "catchy," the costumes "witty" and the lines "risque." As surely as Gulliver's Travels has become a children's bedtime story, Threepenny Opera seems on the way to being acclaimed as "a wonderful musical."
It is hard to fight such misguided enthusiasm and perhaps one should not blame the actors in the current Charles Playhouse production if from time to time they seem to give up the battle. Still, Stephen Elliott, who plays the central role of Macheath, might show a little more fighting spirit. His performance gives scant indication that Mackie is basically "a lean man, a mean man." Instead, Elliott's Mackie is a genial musical comedy star who likes nothing so much as playing to the audience. When other members of the cast follow his example, the play loses its undercurrent of irony. Instead of speaking satire, the characters often seem to be reciting situation comedy dialogue.
But Weill's music (under the direction of Richard Parrinello) always restores the flow. And it is perhaps no accident that the most successful performance in the production (Gerry Ledd's Jenny) is almost exclusively a singing role. The music still has teeth even when the dialogue has lost its bite.
But none of this is to suggest that the Charles' production is less substantial than, say, the Theatre de Lys production in New York. Enervated Brecht is all the Brecht American audiences seem to care for, and it is hard to blame the Charles for that.
The two-story sets by David Mitchell are a successful departure from the New York model, and Michael Murray, the director, moves his players up and down with surprising ease.
So take your date to The Threepenny Opera and hum along as the chorus sings "Trust Not in Justice." Don't take the words too seriously. They were made for an earlier and less fortunate age.