Kelsey Theater sings its version of 'Three Penny Opera.'

Tuesday, May 6, 2008 3:00 PM EDT

By Stuart Duncan

WALTER Kerr, the late and much celebrated theater critic first for the New York Herald Tribune and later for The New York Times, once said: “‘Three Penny Opera’ is the most wonderfully insulting music I have ever come across.”

   Based on John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, written in 1728, it took exactly 200 years before Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill teamed up to adapt it for the musical stage. The subject matter is brittle and sardonic — a world of beggars, thieves and prostitutes — and Brecht and Weill introduced the spirit of the German Weimar period between World Wars I and II.

   The show uses deliberately antisocial techniques — painted signs, titles projected on screens to announce scenes, music-hall type songs and asides that often have little to do with the plot. It is all designed to keep an intellectual distance and to allow the audience to see themselves among the thieves and prostitutes. Brecht himself described the music as “meant to become an active collaborator in the beer of the mindless corpus of ideas.”

   Thus, you see, the fine production at MCCC’s Kelsey Theatre by Pierrot Productions (titled 3Penny) may not be to everyone’s taste. We follow the career of Macheath, known far and wide throughout the city as “Mack the Knife.” He already has dumped the hooker Jenny for whom he still carries lust, has impregnated Lucy and plans to marry Polly Peachum. But Polly’s mom and dad are well aware of Macheath’s crimes and his fondness for women, and they plan to protect their daughter. They know that Macheath has Tiger Brown, the London police chief, under his control, but they too have allies. It is the time of the Coronation (of Victoria) and while the police may well be busy protecting the public, the Peachums are determined to avenge the wrongs done to their daughter.

   It is all done in a highly stylized manner, with no particular interest in production values. In fact, some stagings are done without scenery at all. Here an almost bare stage is effective and director Pete LaBriola has moved his company with minimum fuss. Recent triumphs on Broadway such as Chicago and Cabaret owe much to Three Penny Opera.


   Tom Orr plays Macheath with a nice swagger, adding suavity, coolness and a callous demeanor. Elizabeth Rzasa is a charmingly naive Polly. Lee Benson is a cuddly teddy-bear of a Tiger Brown; Melissa Rittman a super Lucy. Her second act solo is a highlight. Cathy Liebars adds another in a long line of memorable portraits as Jenny. Cecelia Tepping and LaBriola himself play Polly’s parents, the latter stepping in on short notice.

   Louis Woodruff conducts a 10-piece orchestra from the new “pit,” now high above the stage where the music is far better heard. It is not an easy score, but it is handled with great taste. Notice should be taken of the costumes (credit Ruth Rittmann), which are most effective.

   You aren’t going to get many opportunities to see and hear this show. Grab it now.

3Penny continues at Kelsey Theatre on the campus of Mercer County Community College, 1200 Old Trenton Road, West Windsor, through May 11. Performances: Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Tickets cost $16, $12 seniors, $10 students/children; (609) 584-9444.