Wilbury's "Three Penny Opera" is a Good Try

May 30, 2013

Going forward with a famous musical is generally a matter of copying. After all, if you are putting on “Annie” or “Nunsense” you aren’t going to change things—just try to do a crowd-pleasing show as well as you can.

But that’s not the case with Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “Three Penny Opera.”

That heavy hound of a musical emerged from the manic theater world of 1928 Berlin. It was an antidote, and a punch, toward the frivolity and volatility of the times. “Three Penny” wasn’t out to entertain you; it wanted to run you over, get you to agree, or at least pay attention to, its social and political outlook. It was meant to be a game-changer.

Brecht was developing his Marxist views, his hatred of capitalism, his idea, as he once said, that “First comes a full stomach, then comes ethics.” He and Weill wanted no part of “make believe” theater. Let the audience know they are seeing a play only, they said. Let them see a stage as a stage, know that they are not to suspend disbelief but listen to a lecture, a point of view.

All of which means that “Three Penny” is a bear of a show to produce. I’ve never seen a really satisfactory version. The music is always fine, the production disappointing. The pop star, Sting, for instance, was atrociously bad in a 1989 New York revival.

At the Wilbury, director Josh Short is using the old theater on Broad Street well.

His “Three-Penny” moves all over the house, surprises you at times. But the truth is that this is a production that can only be called a good try.

The large cast and a six piece orchestra work hard. They clearly understand that this is now a show where they are to get the audience to believe in a point of view.

You’ll remember, perhaps, that the play centered around Macheath, also known as Mac the Knife, a super criminal who makes the case that you gotta do what you gotta do to survive in this often heartless world. He’s played by David Tessier with precision and black-eyed anger. Christine Dickinson is a pretty Polly Peachum, Mac’s wife, and near savior. She sings well but her diction needs improving.

Tom Gleadow, Phyllis Lynne, Karen Carpenter, Katie Travers, all give their best.

But, as so often happens, “The Three Penny Opera” proves over-long, over- didactic and just plain too much to allow a winning production.

Bertolt Brecht once said: “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” That shaping can be a very difficult task.

Want to Go?

“The Three Penny Opera” continues at the Willbury Group in Trinity United Methodist Church, Broad Street, Providence through June 8th.

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