'Three Penny Opera' captivates

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Special to the Trenton Times


Mercer County Community College's Kelsey Theatre has seen a banner year of challenging shows. Pierrot Productions updated with "Falsettos" and "Follies," the Chang-Ferrara team set the innovative "Elegies," Maurer Productions staged a stunning "Driving Miss Daisy" as well as a delightful "Singin' in the Rain," and Penning ton Players director John Zimmerman turned the so-so "My Favorite Year" into a hit.

Now, the Pierrot people have taken on the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill "Three Penny Opera," a 1928 operetta that took its inspiration from John Gay's "Beggars Opera" of 1728. Following the adage that the more things change, the more they remain the same, Brecht and Weill followed Gay's satire of London's underworld closely and updated its dark commentary on poverty and greed.

The lead character Macheath -- Mack the Knife -- is far from a hero in a conventional sense, but a thief, con man and womanizer, and the folks around him are just as bad -- begging, whoring, gambling, picking pockets and stealing whatever isn't tied down. The local constabulary is crooked, too.

Given this rich soup of depravity, there is plenty of wit and irony to be had in the lyrics of Brecht and Weill's musical crossbreeding of opera and jazz. As we travel around the seedier neighborhoods of London and end up in Newgate Prison, we hear the songs of easy life and laments of the downtrodden. The music ranges from aria to street song, and calls upon both operatic and musical stage voices.

Director Pete LaBriola leads a large cast of veterans plus newcom ers, and even steps in himself as the hypocritical Peachum, who trains beggars and takes a cut. Baritone Tom Orr is the attractive but dangerous Macheath, with sopranos Elizabeth Rzasa as his bride, Cecelia Tepping as his mother-in- law, Melissa Rittmann as his wife and Cathy Liebars as his girlfriend.

Tom Chiola does nicely in four roles and gets to sing the show's hit song, "Ballad of Mack the Knife," made famous by Bobby Darin in the '50s. Orr and Liebars steam up the stage in the "Tango Ballad," while John Russell, Jim Palmer, Edgard Garcia, Lee Benson and Ethan Fishbane add humor as Mackie's gang of common thieves with colorful names.

The "Three Penny" cast possesses excellent voices and has a lot of stage experience, but seems tentative with Brecht's declamatory style of an earlier age, where relatively little attention is paid to back story or motivation. In this case, it's "We're bad because we're bad." As the production continues, the actors will no doubt ease into the unfamiliar groove.

Lou Woodruff conducts a large orchestra that delivers Weill's insinuating rhythms and dissonant harmonies with energy and confidence. Costumer Ruth Rittman provides the cast with everything from rags to riches. Kat Ross supplies choreography and Bernie and Virginia McGowen rule lights and sound.

This provocative little masterpiece does not come around very often, but as both history and art, it should be seen.