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EYE ON THEATRE

Of Beggars and Gangsters

By JOHN SIMON

 

“The Threepenny Opera” by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill  (1928) is one of the supreme masterpieces of the musical theater, loosely based on John Gay’s satire “The Beggars’ Opera” (1728). Because Brecht was quite a magpie, there are bits of Villon and Kipling as well as Gay in this much worked and reworked piece. But the one person Brecht would never have borrowed from is Martha Clarke, director, choreographer and mismanager of the present revival, who did her utmost to reduce the work to a hapenny opera.

Heavily cut, the Blitzstein version (the first, but not the best, in English) is greatly fiddled with by Clarke, especially with a weird choreography or pantomime that runs throughout, with unscripted characters steadily soliciting or having sex along the sidelines, or just moseying around and cluttering up the proceedings.

Typical of the Clarkian nonsense, on Robert Israel’s stark unit set, looking like some Moroccan fortification in ruins, is the character of Lucy Brown singing in a high window “The Ballad of the Drowned Girl”—an unrelated work by Brecht and Weill,
totally irrelevant here. Or consider the equally irrelevant deer’s head mounted over a door, or the preposterous bulldog, Romeo, drinking at a bar, and later appearing riding on a wagon, crowned and gowned, representing Queen Victoria’s coronation procession.

There is a pleonastic lewdness and crudeness to this production, lacking completely in the sense of menace implicit under the merry goings-on. Even the sinister beggar king Peachum and malicious Mrs. Peachum, as incarnated by F. Murray Abraham and Mary Beth Peil, are far too jovial. As daughter Polly, the lovely actress and impeccable soprano Laura Osnes, is nowhere near the tough babe to whom robber-hero Macheath entrusts the leadership of his gang while he is escaping from the law.

I won’t go into details of how Clarke has reassigned, broken up, or misplaced the glorious songs, or cast such a profoundly unappealing actress as Lilli Cooper in the role of Lucy, here made needlessly pregnant. As Macheath, aka Mack the Knife, Michael Park is costumed as dapperly as called for by Donna Zakowska, and well sung and smooth enough, but, again, much too anodyne. As the Street Singer, John Kelly sings the world-famous “Ballad of Mack the Knife” competently, but, yet again, perambulating much too amiably—it might as well be the “Ballad of Mack the Ladle.”

In short, every aspect of Epic Theater, as evolved by the authors, is ignored, and even the music, played too slowly by a band kept unduly half-hidden in the background, suffers accordingly. All that can be said for this production is apt lighting by Christopher Akerlind, and, more important, that the music is so good that it survives even the bowdlerizing Blitzstein translation and Clarke’s abominable travesty.

Venue: Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street, New York, NY. Ticket purchases accomplished by calling OvationTix at 866.811.4111 or online at www.web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/34237

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It looks as though if there were no old movies to musicalize there’d be no more Broadway musicals. The latest such attempt is the Woody Allen-Douglas McGrath movie “Bullets Over Broadway,” now ascribed to Woody alone, although the director-choreographer Susan Stroman’s heavy hand is also much too discernible.

The film version was quite amusing, and many of its jokes return warmed over. It is the story of how highfalutin and bumbling playwright, David Shayne, finally gets produced on Broadway, but only with money from the gangster capo Nick Valenti, with the stipulation of a role for Nick’s untalented but pretentious bimbo girlfriend, Olive Neal. Also mandated is Nick’s hit man Cheech to watch over Olive during rehearsals, much to his own and David’s horror.

Olive wants the female lead, but this goes to the presumptuous aging diva, Helen Sinclair; the male lead, to the esurient star Walter Porcell, a compulsive eater who keeps getting fatter. David, who abandoned his sweet girlfriend Ellen, now falls for the grandiose and possessive Helen. Meanwhile Cheech, who finds David’s dialogue too wordily literary, starts aggressively rewriting the show.

Too many things that worked on screen do not for “Bullets Over Broadway,” the musical. There is, to be sure, a terrific performance by Nick Cordero as Cheech, brilliantly combining comedy and menace, and almost making up for what most of the others lack. Vincent Pastore is good as the capo, and so is Betsy Wolfe, as the forsaken Ellen. But no one else shines.

Zach Braff, as David, tries hard enough to turn potential laughs into groans, and the usually excellent Marin Mazzie overacts as Helen by a mile that is not as good as a miss. Totally lacking in charm are Heléne Yorke’s Olive and Bruce Ashmanskas’s Porcell. The very gifted Karen Ziemba is condemned to a minor and unintegrated role, and no one else manages to matter. A good bit of the blame must go to Susan Stroman, whose choreography for an absurd gangster ballet is fun enough, but almost everything else replicates her much superior work for “The Producers.”

A problem too is the score, which is a pick-up of various preexisting numbers from the Twenties, some well-known, some not, but all, despite additions and adjustments by Glenn Kelly, less effective in this reemployment. It may also be that singing and dancing gangsters—always excepting Nick Cordero—are a joke that wears thin, even as Porcell’s belly gets unconvincingly thicker and thicker.

William Ivey Long’s costumes are steadily amusing, and Santo Loquasto’s sets (he also designed them for the movie) grandly allow us to see where every dollar went. But it is hard to leave a show humming the sets and costumes.

Venue: St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street, New York, NY 10036. Tickets at www.Telecharge.com or 800.432.7250.

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In a revival of Lanie Robertson’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” we get the hugely talented Audra McDonald re-creating one of the last appearances of the great, tragic Billie Holiday in a paltry Philadelphia four months before her demise.

Under Lonny Price’s assiduous direction, Ms. McDonald not only acts up a storm, but also aptly reproduces Billie’s nightclubby voice, which for an operatically trained soprano must be doubly hard. In between 14 Holiday songs, we get spoken recollections of Billie’s life, expertly delivered.

There is first-rate support from Shelton Becton on piano, George Farmer on bass and Clayton Craddock on drums, but I can’t help having found a different version of the Holiday story, with DeeDee Bridgewater some months ago, better written, though no better executed.

Still, this version, at Circle in the Square, with seating at tables in the middle and on conventional seats in the ¾ round, does provide the right atmosphere, and the songs are there in all their haunting effectiveness.

Venue: Circle in the Square Theatre, West 50th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue. Tickets: Call TeleCharge at 800.432.7250

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John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post. To learn more, visit the www.JohnSimon-Uncensored.com  website.

 

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