The Shark Has Pearly Whites

On the Kelsey stage walks Mack the Knife in ‘3PENNY: The Threepenny Opera.’

Wednesday, April 30, 2008 4:06 PM EDT

By Susan Van Dongen


Actor Tom Orr has some really big shoes to step into. He is playing the role of Macheath (Mackie Messer or Mack the Knife) in Pierrot Productions’ staging of 3PENNY: The Threepenny Opera at the Kelsey Theatre in West Windsor May 2 through 11.

   Scott Merrill was Macheath in the original 1954 off-Broadway production. Others who have played the antihero include Theodore Bikel, Tim Curry, Raul Julia and Sting. Law & Order fans will enjoy the fact that two of the show’s stars portrayed the role as well. Jesse Martin was a splendid Macheath in the 2003 Williamstown Theatre Festival version and the late Jerry Orbach took over from Mr. Merrill in the 1950s.

   ”There were quite a few famous people in the original,” says Pete LaBriola, The Threepenny Opera’s director and production designer, who also plays Jonathan Peachum. “They weren’t famous then, but they became so. Bea Arthur was in that cast and so was John Astin, in a minor role, as a member of the gang.”   Edward Asner, Estelle Parsons and Jerry Stiller were also in the cast.

   The Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill musical has always been controversial, from its staging in Berlin during the days of the Weimar Republic, to its various incarnations in the United States and elsewhere. The Threepenny Opera must have really raised some eyebrows in the ‘50s, when the typical Broadway show was something more along the lines of Oklahoma!<br>    ”Everything was pretty much bubbly back then,” Mr. LaBriola says. “There were not too many (plays) about pimps and whores and thieves and beggars.”

   Loosely based on John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, a work that dates to the 18th century, the Brecht/Weill version offered a socialist critique of the capitalist world. It was created and staged at a time when Germany’s economy was reeling from the aftermath of World War I. Stories abound of the worthless deutsche mark and widespread poverty. People supposedly took wheelbarrows filled with currency to the store to buy a loaf of bread.

   Mr. LaBriola sighs a little and laughs, noting how appropriate the musical is right now.

   ”They needed a wheelbarrow full of money to buy bread, we need one to go to the gas pump,” he says. “It’s the same story — ‘it’s the economy, stupid.’”

   Set in an abstract version of Victorian London, the play focuses on the people of the working class, rather than those who would normally attend fashionable upper-class operas. It seems like society has been turned upside down, with the “establishment” being the true criminals.

   ”It poses the question, ‘Who is the bigger criminal, the bank robber or the bank founder?’” Mr. LaBriola says.

   ”The situation was terrible in 1920s Germany,” Mr. Orr says. “(The government) did virtually nothing for the poor people, there was no welfare. It was a bit like the era of the robber barons in America.”

   ”The original piece goes back to the 1700s and the commentary was true in that day as well — the poor were everywhere and nobody did anything about it,” Mr. LaBriola says. “Brecht recognized that this was still true and it fueled his writing of the show.

   ”It’s not accurate in the spirit of the show to think of (the characters) as criminals,” he adds. “They’re opportunists of necessity. Everyone would like to have a job, but sometimes the opportunity doesn’t present itself. (Macheath’s gang) is not that different from gang culture in the inner cities. Crime is crime, but you could also think of it as entrepreneurship.”

   ”It’s the way (society) divides those in darkness from those in the light, we forget about the poor,” Mr. Orr says. “The establishment creates the poor but doesn’t want to look at them. My character wants to find some happiness but there’s no legitimate avenue, so he takes whatever he can — loot and women. He’s not immoral, he’s amoral.”

   Aside from the social message, however, The Threepenny Opera is an entertaining show with a farcical, mordant sense of humor. The music — which blends a number of styles — will appeal to fans of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, which paid homage to German dancehall music or club jazz.

   ”Some of it does border on opera,” Mr. Orr says. “But then, some of my songs are like dance hall, with a little tango thrown in. There are even different styles within the songs themselves, which makes things interesting. It’s really wonderful music, but at the same time, the lyrics are the most important thing in many of the songs.”

   ”Audiences have forgotten how (singular) Kurt Weill’s music is,” Mr. LaBriola says. “Kander and Ebb took great inspiration from Weill with ‘Cabaret,’ so did Sondheim with ‘Sweeney Todd.’”

   A resident of Yardley, Pa., this is the first time Mr. Orr has worked with Pierrot Productions. He’s been a fixture in the Delaware Valley, appearing in more than 100 productions at such venues as the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, Bristol Riverside Theatre in Bristol, Pa., and Off-Broadstreet Theatre in Hopewell.

   The Threepenny Opera showcases other talent from the region, including Liz Rzasa of Lawrence as Polly Peachum, Cecelia Tepping of Princeton Junction as Mrs. Peachum, Cathy Liebars of Langhorne, Pa., as Jenny, Melissa Rittmann of Ewing as Lucy, Lee Benson of Hopewell as Tiger Brown and Tim Chiola of Trenton as the Street Singer.

   Musical directors are Pam Sharples of East Windsor and Lou Woodruff of Washington Crossing, Pa., with choreography by Kat Ross of Langhorne, Pa.

   Macheath is a dream role for Mr. Orr, something the veteran actor has always wanted to play. If nothing else, he gets to sing “Mack the Knife,” not as the swinging radio hit Bobby Darin and Ella Fitzgerald recorded but as Weill wrote it.

   ”It’s totally different, it’s not swing jazz,” Mr. Orr says. “It’s a dark and scary number.”

   ”There’s a grating sense to the music, it can even cause discomfort, and Weill did that on purpose,” Mr. LaBriola says. “Both Brecht and Weill showed their genius in the creation of this show, generally in ways that the casual observer would never detect. Brecht wrote the script like an onion — you peel away a layer and a new and different one is revealed just below it. As many different versions of the show as I’ve read and seen over the years, there were still things that didn’t become apparent to me until working on the current project.

   ”One thing that never came screaming out was the analog they’ve created to religion,” he continues. “Macheath is a Christ character and Jenny is like Judas. There’s no way he can be saved but by a miracle. We’ve found correspondences between the major characters and major biblical characters. Even the wedding is set in a way so it’s kind of like the Last Supper. We’ve snuck a few things like that in.”

3PENNY: The Threepenny Opera will be performed at the Kelsey Theatre, 1200 Old Trenton Road, Mercer County Community College, West Windsor, May 2-11. Performances: Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Tickets cost $16, $12 seniors, $10 students/children. (609) 570-3333;