The Threepenny Opera, American Theater Company, and Happy End, European Repertory Company. “Even Brecht wrote musicals,” says a character in Paul Rudnick’s comedy Jeffrey. And so he did–with a lot of help from his secretary Elisabeth Hauptmann and composer Kurt Weill. Bertolt Brecht–the German playwright famed for emphasizing intellectual engagement over emotional appeal–knew that sinuous melody and bracing harmony could drive home his satiric lyrics. In honor of Brecht’s centenary, Chicago audiences are being offered the 1928 Weill-Brecht-Hauptmann hit The Threepenny Opera and its 1929 follow-up Happy End. Both use underworld romances to satirize bourgeois corruption and pretensions and skewer moral hypocrisy–an especially apt enterprise given the prurient piety now wafting from Capitol Hill.
Unfortunately, neither of these ambitious productions does the material justice. The singing and acting need much more bite and excitement in this dour Threepenny Opera, performed in Marc Blitzstein’s English adaptation and directed by Brian Russell. Under Mark Elliott’s musical direction, the singers’ rendition of Weill’s ingenious fusion of music hall, military, operatic, and church idioms is strong but too studied. Stef Tovar is miscast as the womanizing gang leader Mack the Knife; in the supporting roles, only Suzanne Petri as Mack’s malicious mother-in-law and Martie Sanders as the world-weary whore Jenny convey Threepenny’s bitter pleasure in rubbing our noses in society’s shit. Still, this is a visually striking staging: Scott Cooper’s marvelous sets, Shelley Strasser-Holland’s lighting, and Jana Stauffer’s costumes are at once Dickensian and German expressionist, as befits a Weimar cabaret musical set in Victorian London.
Happy End’s look is its best feature too. Dale Goulding’s staging takes a rough-edged approach to this tale of a Salvation Army officer who falls for a Chicago mob enforcer. The show begins intriguingly, as the actors make up in dressing rooms visible on either side of the aisle (Sandy Morris created their inventively garish, gaunt looks). Unfortunately, the cast is more interesting offstage than on–not that they have much to work with in this script, a hodgepodge of muddled socialist rhetoric and adolescent sexual humor. What’s kept Happy End around for almost 70 years is its great songs, heard here in Michael Feingold’s English versions. But except for Richard Edward Frederick in a high-energy drag turn, the singers aren’t up to the music, nor is pianist Natalia Futasova. Her simplified but still error-prone accompaniment (for which musical director Robert Steel must presumably share the blame) is the real crime here. –Albert Williams