It is a joy because the actors and actresses are enjoying it themselves. They have dispensed with the heavy complexities of modern drama and have turned the clock back two and a half centuries, to time when human affairs began and ended with money and sex, when robbers and whores danced at their compatriots' hangings. But they let us know from the start that no one's really going to get hanged, that the raging and weeping histrionics are no more than over-acting (though done with skill and polish), that what we are seeing is only a beggar's tale.
The highwayman Captain Macheath is our hero-villain who faces the gallows. In a moment of passionate indiscretion he has married Polly Peachum, and now the greedy Mr. Peachum turns his daughter's situation to his own advantage. With the treacherous aid of Macheath's lovely women, Peachum captures our hero and delivers him, for the reward, to Newgate Prison. The Captain's other wife, Lucy Lockit, frees him, but in another moment of indiscretion he is captured again, this time by both Mr. Lockit and Mr. Peachum. The Captain should hang, and in a tragedy he would hang, but this opera being a comedy, he lived, and all rejoice, the women a bit more than the men.
First for the ladies of the company, each one a pleasure to the eye and ear. As Polly, Catherine Winn makes her debut in Harvard drama, and she is a welcome addition. She possesses that rare combination of first-rate acting ability and a beautiful lyric soprano, and she knows how to balance the two. Her sweet, artless Polly could soften even the hardest highwayman's heart, and we easily understand Macheath's impetuous marriage vows.
The opera is full of scene stealers, but Emily Levine, as Mrs. Peachum, is the biggest thief of the lot. Her bulging eyes, arched body, piercing voice, and hilariously affected manner make her the center of attention even when she is saying nothing. She is blustering one moment, cooing the next all the time revelling in her over-played comedy. Judith Press plays a fiery, buxom Lucy with the same touch of humor.
Because Joel Martin is surrounded by such fine performances, it seems unfair to praise him excessively. Yet his subtle, dashing Macheath deserves every superlative in my critical vocabulary. With just a twinkle of his eye he tells you what he's thinking, makes you an accomplice in his delight. He and Philip Heckscher, as Macheath's helpmate filch, perfectly time their comic gestures to suit their songs. And they both have rich, pleasing voices. Richard Backus, as Locket, is the male counterpart of Miss Levine, a slapstick scene stealer with a comically mobile face. Unfortunately awkward, for he seems unsure of himself, stumbling over his lines and stiffly declaiming his songs. Still, he scowls enough to make an adequately evil Peachum.
But the last and highest, praise must go to director John Lithgow for the gall to undertake such a production and the imagination to make it succeed. His numerous bits of comic stage business, his theatrical playfulness and inventiveness kepp the brief duets as exciting as the raucous tavern scenes and intricate dances. Under Lithgow's broad, farcical hand, The Beggar's Opera sparkles.