How would you like to spend the evening in 19th century London, surrounded by beggars, whores and bandits? The chance to partake in such an event is rare but, thankfully, UC Irvine’s “Threepenny Opera” did the trick. This production of a seemingly dull show made the price of admission completely worthwhile. Am I going out on a limb saying it was one of the best shows of the season? I think not.
“The Threepenny Opera” is one of the few shows that has managed to survive the modern renaissance of musical theatre. Based on a classical opera by John Gay, this old story was jazzed up by the radical German playwright, Bertolt Brecht. His version became acknowledged as a masterpiece, both in Nazi Germany and in the present day. At this point, it’s had several more inceptions and countless revivals; it was even made into a movie in 1931 and a novel a few years later.
A musical comedy in the traditional two acts, this fun-filled theatre extraordinaire portrays theft and poverty in a humorous light. Clad in rags and garters, the cast led the audience through the tale of the great thief Mack the Knife. Throughout the play he tries to avoid consequences of his actions, like his multiple marriages to the prostitute Lucy and the naughty-but-nice Polly. Filled with comedic timing, sexual innuendos and a plate of asparagus, this show has it all.
Considering how this is a college production and not a Broadway performance, I honestly was not expecting much. But so many aspects of the production were professional, like the set, which was very well-designed. Just thinking about it now brings out the theatre geek in me.
It was structured perfectly: not overdone like many high-budget shows, or sparse, as perhaps the budget cuts would make it seem.
So much brilliance was portrayed in the first few minutes of the performance alone, that I knew the next few hours would be spent in pleasure, not discomfort.
In true Brechtian fashion, each song was conveyed to the audience through title-cards that were seamlessly integrated into the set.
Though the leads did a fine job of keeping the plot alive and funny, my favorite character was one who did not have the luxury of verbally expressing himself.
The best character of the entire show was the whore “Coaxer” (third-year Jaymie Bellous), who had very few lines, and did not even appear until the second act. However, whenever he was onstage, I watched no one else. The lone male prostitute in a brothel of women, this cross-dressing character was so hilariously portrayed through his exaggerated femininity and flirtatious actions that he practically made the show.
Another perfect casting job was the part of the Glorious Messenger (MFA student Ryan Imhoff). This was another bit part, and yet I laughed more at his performance than anyone else in the show.
As a messenger from the queen herself, he saves the entire show from a tragic ending, delivered with a few witty lines and a raised eyebrow. He did not even sing the final song with the cast, but just stood there in his princely manner with a raised eyebrow surveying the crowd. One should see the show merely for him and his eyebrow.
I suppose I should acknowledge the leads as well, since they were obviously important. Most of the main characters were good, simply stated. They furthered the plot without much annoyance or poor portrayals, which was good for a play such as this.
However, the best lead was undoubtedly Jenny Diver (MFA student Grace Gealey). As the leader of a brothel, she exhibited a strong will and fiery personality; she captivated all the guys dragged to the musical by their girlfriends (the fishnets probably didn’t hurt either). She rocked her part, both in her acting and her singing, and was another reason I enjoyed this show immensely.
It was not the play itself that made this experience as great as it was, but instead the actors who committed to their roles. Everyone was well cast and, despite some of the opening night glitches, the production flowed smoothly.
The Sweeney Todd-esque style of “Threepenny Opera” reminded me of how wonderful a night of good musical theatre can be.