Threepennys Worth--Barely

The Threepenny Opera At the Caravan Theater Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30

ALL THE CHARACTERS on the seedy stage of the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill Threepenny Opera look out for themselves. An effective production of the unique hybrid of cabaret song, Broadway show, and revolutionary tract should leave you asking yourself whether you're any different. Brecht's script keeps up a steady fire of political comment, and his socialism slips in discreetly enough so that even American audiences in the '50s could stomach it. But it's Weill's brooding, often harsh music--so evocative of Weimar Germany's rotten core--that fixes The Threepenny Opera's world of human iniquity and mortality in the audience's mind. Maybe it's just a case of the fascination of the grotesque: the songs aren't beautiful, but you don't forget them.

The Threepenny Opera is long--almost three hours--and demands a versatile cast of singing actors. They don't have to be polished--gravelly, ugly voices suit Weill's music better than smooth ones, anyway. But they have to capture the sordid decadence that fills both text and music--they need a sense of atmosphere. The production fails because director and performers never secure this black mood.

They come closest to it at the very beginning. As the light go up, cast members in rags spill out over the stage area and into the audience, assaulting, abusing, fondling, pickpocketing and beating each other. Here is Brecht's London writ small, and the streetsinger (Kermit Norris) croons the familiar "Mack the Knife" over it. But for some reason his costume has no tatters, and his delivery of the ballad is prim and affected. So much for anarchy and dissipation.

In the few decades since he first appeared, Macheath--he of the white gloves, cane and jackknife--has become a stage favorite. The king of the underworld who's best friends with the chief of police strides through The Threepenny, Opera refusing to be judged. Women, of course, fall all over him, and he's married two (at least). Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, the "king of the beggars," a less familiar character, acts as Brecht's mouthpiece to deliver the show's straight-forward message: don't condemn how others earn their next meal until you're faced with missing one yourself. Working, begging, taking bribes, stealing--they blur together in Brecht's world. "What's robbing a bank compared to founding a bank," asks Macheath; "What's killing a man compared to employing a man?"

MACHEATH HAS TO be a man of the world who knows how to survive, who's grown a little shabby, a little scruffy, perhaps, but who keeps his sense of style along with his white gloves. Allen C. Kennedy's Mack the Knife sounds like a two-bit punk who got lost in Flatbush and somehow ended up in London, 1830. It's not necessarily a wrong-headed interpretation, but it needs strength, consistency, and a sense of Macheath's age--and Kennedy gives it none of these.

Macheath, always the gentleman, marries Peachum's daughter Polly in a stable; when Peachum finds out he vows to have Macheath hanged. He finally catches the man-about-town at his weekly appointment with his whore, Jenny. This, of course, is the role Lotte Lenya made famous, and it's central to the show. Marylou Ledden plays the part with sense--she catches the world-weariness in Brecht better than anyone else in the cast. But her inadequate singing must be the reason the director, Harvey Seifter, gives Jenny's big number, "Pirate Jenny," to Polly Peachum (Ann Titolo) instead. Well, directors have taken liberties with this script before, and Titolo sings the old favorite with spirit; but Jenny without her touching, spine-chilling "dreams of a kitchen maid," becomes just another plot-moving character.

The abundance of talent in the supporting cast cannot make up for a weak Macheath or Jenny. Morton Pierce stands out as the eminently bribable police chief, a bald-headed buffoon; so does Kathryn Falk as Lucy Brown, his daughter and Macheath's other wife. Falk's delivery of the pathetic "Barbara Song" was the best number of the evening. In most productions this is Polly's lament; I suppose Lucy took this one on after Polly got "Pirate Jenny." Playing a game of musical numbers like this may match singers up with the songs they can perform, but it also unties the music from the plot.

Other performers in the Caravan production are obviously talented but don't even try to be sordid. You would be glad to have Ida Beecher's Mrs. Peachum as your grandmother; she plays the kind old lady to perfection, but brings an element of benevolence onto Brecht's stage that doesn't belong there.

CLIFFORD WOODWORTH as Mr. Peachum seems to understand Brecht better, and his operatic voice adds to his performance. It was a shame to see him have to glance up at the conductor (Paul D. Lehrman) in confusion as the musical ensemble fell apart during the finale to Act I. From the opening bars of the overture, Lehrman takes the score at a gallop. He doesn't give the music the time it needs to fester, to spread its fumes; more importantly, the singers couldn't keep up with the pace. (If you want to hear Weill's music in a really atmospheric performance, pick up the old Berlin recording on Odyssey Records. It's in German, but it's got Lotte Lenya and it's cheap).

Seifter makes good use of a small church as the playhouse, and he paces the scenes well. He even suggests the teeming decay endemic to The Threepenny Opera in the opening scene. But failures of casting and characterization quickly break the spell. Brecht's script speaks directly enough, and Weill's music is brilliant enough, so that even a mediocre performance like Caravan's is worth seeing, especially if you've never seen the show before. But The Threepenny Opera ought to more than entertain; if the director, actors and musicians conspire aright, it can give you a whiff of death.