There’d be no “Chicago,” no “Cabaret” and no “Sweeney Todd” if it weren’t for German playwright Bertolt Brecht and one of his most famous works, “The Threepenny Opera.” Brecht’s landmark 1928 script — along with the innovative music of Kurt Weill — sparked the darkly comic, jazz-cabaret style that has given birth to some of the most famous musicals of our time.
With John Gay’s 18th-century opera “The Beggar’s Game” as its source material, Brecht crafted a musical that claimed to be “by and for beggars.” Brecht’s world of VictorianLondon is rife with familiar characters: cold-blooded vagrants, thieves, whores and backstabbers. And like the Sweeney Todds and Roxie Harts that it inspired, “The Threepenny Opera’”s cast of dark characters is appealing enough to seduce the audience straight to the bottom of the chain.
For UCSD’s adaptation — running at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre until Saturday night — third-year MFA student and director Jeffrey Wienckowski transplants the story to the Great Depression, allowing the Marxist criticisms of the capitalist world in the original to shed light on the American Dream.
The show opens in the shop of Jonathan Peachum (Zach Martens) — who leads and trains a group of beggars — as he notices that his daughter Polly (Taylor Shurte) has not come home since she went out the night before. Little does he know, she’s hooking up with, and planning on marrying (in a stable, of all places), criminal du jour Macheath, aka Mack the Knife (Zach Harrison).
Peachum is furious when he discovers the news, and sets out to arrest Mack with the help of the sheriff, Tiger Brown (Mark Christine), getting caught up in manipulations along the way.
Meanwhile, betrayal lurks around every corner, and each colorful character is guilty of trickery. People use others for their own advantage. People use others for sexual pleasure. People use others for political means. And Mack the Knife uses others for everything
As the play progresses, we see Mack rise to the top. He has men bowing at his feet, cops under his belt and is able to balance Polly as his lover, Lucy (Megan Robinson) as his old flame and Jenny (Anne Stella) as his hooker on the side.
Despite the exciting plot-twists, Wienckowski’s two-and-a-half-hour interpretation regrettably loses the sarcastic undertones of the original. Sarah Cogan’s dark lighting makes the characters appear more frightening than spiteful. Poorly choreographed, awk- ward slap-stick jokes are inserted in an attempt to enhance the humor, though they mostly detract from the darkness of the plot. Other additions, like the rickety, ostensibly unfinished set and animated projections in the beginning make little significant contribution.
The gifted cast puts on credible performances nonetheless. As Polly, Shurte is the perfect innocent, playing well off Harrison’s debonair, mischievous Mack. Stella hits the right combination of seduction and arrogance playing Jenny, while the rest of the hookers — with their ditzy, nasally delivery — add a nice little touch to the story as a grown- up interpretation of Cinderella’s evil stepsisters.
But the lifeblood of the play is Weill’s exuberant music, boosted by jazzy chord progressions, light accordions and the melodramatic organ that embody the liveliness of the ’20s — if you’re familiar with the Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong renditions of “The Ballad of Mack the Knife,” you will enjoy the brilliantly performed version in the play.
But for a show that claims to be for the corrupt thief, the cast and crew should have stolen more from the simplicity of the Brecht original. New settings and new ideas don’t always make a lasting impression. (B-)