Arts & Culture

REVIEW: Cashing in with 'Threepenny Opera'

C.R. Opera Theatre changes course with raucous romp

Taylor Fiser Photography

“The Threepenny Opera” beggars are ready to fleece the wealthy expected to line the procession route for Queen Victoria’s coronation. Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre is staging the musical comedy through Sunday at CSPS Hall in Cedar Rapids.
Taylor Fiser Photography “The Threepenny Opera” beggars are ready to fleece the wealthy expected to line the procession route for Queen Victoria’s coronation. Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre is staging the musical comedy through Sunday at CSPS Hall in Cedar Rapids.
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Here’s my two cents on “The Threepenny Opera”: It’s weirdly wonderful in all the best ways.

The Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre’s wildly entertaining interpretation of this romp through the seamy underbelly of early 19th century London continues through Sunday at CSPS Hall.

If you have seen the movie or other staged productions, cast aside your preconceived notions. My colleague who has seen two movie versions was expecting a tragedy. His wife was expecting an opera.

Elements of both are there, wrapped up in Ron Clark’s daring direction and Janie Westendorf’s brilliant steam punk costumes. Add in the actors’ glorious singing and some slapstick sidekicks, and you have a vaudevillian burlesque where dark derisions flow beneath humorous dialogue and Kurt Weill’s vibrant, jazzy musical score.

I highly recommend arriving an hour before curtain to hear Robert Lindsey-Nassif’s insightful preshow discussion in the CSPS first-floor black box theater. I enjoyed and understood the production so much better after he placed it in context according to the state of the world and its response to World War I psychologically and artistically.

As Nassif explained, even though the action is set on the eve of Queen Victoria’s 1838 coronation, avant-garde playwright Bertold Brecht teamed up with Weill to build on an 18th century ballad opera using dialogue and popular music to thumb its nose at aristocracy. At a time when the upper crust attended lavish operas, this is a bawdy look at the criminal element, where the king of the beggars is beside himself that his innocent daughter has fallen in love with an even lower life form — the glib and charming Macheath, known as Mack the Knife.

The teaming of avant-garde Brecht with classical composer Weill — two Germans drawing Nazi scrutiny — mirrors the dichotomy of the emerging expressionist movement in the arts, an outgrowth of the global shellshocked reaction to the blood bath of World War I, Nassif noted. The show’s most well-known song, the scene-setting “Mack the Knife,” is the perfect example of bouncy dance music wrapped around dark, disturbing lyrics about Macheath’s murderous exploits.

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The sparse setting works perfectly, with just a scaffolding and occasional benches, table, chairs and a bed to denote the various settings. The audience sees the exposed brick on the back wall, and the actors sit in the shadows when they aren’t onstage. A small orchestra sits just out of sight on stage, in the tradition of Berlin cabarets of the 1920s and ’30s.

Bringing Clark onboard was a stroke of great fortune. A co-founder of Iowa City’s Riverside Theatre, he directed or produced more than 230 productions there over three decades. Unlike a traditional opera, this show has more dialogue than singing, so artists who are used to a more presentational style are tasked with stepping up their acting game. Clark always sets the bar high and they rose to the challenge.

Matt Chastain gives Macheath an unctuous charm. Dressed akin to a ringmaster, his life is a circus of prostitutes, con games, bigamy and murder, with just enough charm to woo the naive, virginal Polly (Jessica Pray). He is both the Snidley Whiplash and the Dudley Do-Right to Pray’s wide-eyed Nell. He ties her to railroad tracks and yet rescues her from the looming locomotive of her parents.

Thaddeus Ennen and Norah Wolfe are hilarious as Polly’s parents, the leaders of the city’s beggars. Andrew Campbell brings an over-the-top camp to his various roles, milking them for all they’re worth — first as a beggar-wannabe who is afraid of everything, and later as the priest more interested in the champagne than in blessing Mack and Polly’s marriage. And Mack’s three thugs bring a Three Stooges buffoonery to their scenes.

Countering all of this is Ashley Kay Armstrong as Jenny Diver, Mack’s go-to lady of the evening whose rough, jaded life allows her to bed him, then betray him. Clark keeps her on the periphery of group scenes, often having her climb on the scaffolding that serves as a hallway, jail cell and multistory interior. That’s another example of the push and pull of the expressionist style, keeping the action just a bit off-kilter.

This is a big departure from the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre’s usual repertoire, and it works.

• Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

IF YOU GO

• What: Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre presents: “The Threepenny Opera”

• Where: CSPS Hall, 1103 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids

• When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

• Tickets: CSPS Box Office, (319) 364-1580 or Legionarts.org/events/upcoming/threepenny-opera/

• Preshow: Free talk by Robert Lindsey-Nassif one hour before curtain in CSPS first floor Black Box Theater

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