Monday, July 11, 2016

Three Musicals: Threepenny Opera, Little Shop of Horrors, and The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk

Rosalie Craig and Rory Kinnear in The Threepenny Opera at London’s National Theatre. (Photo byRichard Hubert Smith)

There’s an exciting new production by Rufus Norris of The Threepenny Opera at London’s National Theatre, with Rory Kinnear, dashing and ironic and brilliant, as Bertolt Brecht’s anti-hero Captain Macheath ("Mack the Knife"), the audacious and unsettling gangster whose insatiable taste for the ladies is his downfall. The trademark supertitles are missing, but Norris knows his Brecht. The National’s current artistic director, he staged London Road there in 2011, a Brechtian musical based on interviews with the residents of a middle-class neighborhood where a serial killer has been dispatching prostitutes; it’s one of the most extraordinary evenings I’ve ever spent in a theatre. Norris made a film of it last year but it wasn’t released on this side of the Atlantic. He’s directed Threepenny as a mélange of carnival side-show, music hall entertainment and pantomime (in the English sense of the word). Vicki Mortimer’s set is a constantly revolving series of scaffolding and flats dressed with construction paper – the actors make their entrances by tearing through it. At the top of the first act, members of the ensemble enact a comic dumb-show version of Mack’s nefarious deeds behind a cut-out frame while the Balladeer (George Ikediashi, who shows up later with a Jamaican accent as the pastor who marries Mack and Polly Peachum, and then in drag at the whorehouse) sings the “Moritat,” a.k.a. “The Ballad of Mack the Knife.” The eight-member band, including music director David Shrubsole on piano and harmonium, appears in the midst of the action, and on some numbers Shrubsole, looking like a seedy undertaker in black with a top hat, accompanies Polly (Rosalie Craig) or Jenny (Sharon Small), cabaret style, on one of the ballads. For the “Army Song,” Mack and his pal Tiger Brown (Peter de Jersey), the chief police inspector, hold onto each other in terror, lit by a downstage special, while lanterns swing ominously back and forth upstage, and on the final verse bloody body bags drop down from the flies. (Paule Constable designed the expressionistic lighting.)

The National commissioned a new translation by Simon Stephens, the talented playwright of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, who’s thrown in enough ideas of his own that it’s listed in the credits as an adaptation. In his version, the main objection Mrs. Peachum (Hayden Gwynne) maintains to her daughter’s marriage to Macheath is jealousy: she herself is on the long list of his lovers. In his identity as an underworld czar Mack’s most vital treasure is a pink envelope that contains blackmail info on an unidentified V.I.P. (All is revealed in the final moments of the show.) Since what makes Threepenny a great piece of theatre isn’t the dialogue but a combination of Brecht’s ideas and style and the magnificent songs he wrote with the incomparable composer Kurt Weill, reimagining some of the narrative and individual scenes isn’t a problem, any more than the interpolation of two songs from Brecht and Weill’s Happy End – “Surabaya Johnny” for Jenny, “Mandalay Song” as an instrumental to cover scene changes. (I’m a big fan of both these tunes, so from my point of view they’re a bonus.) But I think Stephens errs in the third act when he tries to make the musical darker by inserting a gratuitous scene where Peachum (Nick Holder), who runs all the beggars in London in Brecht’s gleeful parody of free enterprise, tortures Jenny, Mack’s favorite whore (a drug addict in this version), to get her to reveal his whereabouts. The scene almost kills the humor in the production, and it gilds the lily: we don’t have to be told at this point in the play that Peachum is ruthless, or for that matter that The Threepenny Opera is a satirical musical that paints a horrifying portrait of capitalism.

A scene from The Threepenny Opera. (Photo: Tristram Kenton)
Brecht and Weill’s other key target is romantic illusion, and it’s the one Norris and Mortimer have the most fun with. The first-act duet by Mr. and Mrs. Peachum, usually called “Instead-Of Song” (the new song titles in the Stephens version aren’t listed in the playbill), was written as their response to the news that Polly has run off and married Macheath, and it pillories the idea that love is anything more than – to quote the title of another one of the songs – sexual dependency. Stephens makes the duet about the Peachums themselves, whose marriage seems to be one of convenience. Peachum, pear-shaped, with a thin frame of hair surrounding a bald pate, is androgynous and sexually ambiguous; he looks like one of the clownish villains in Chaplin’s movies (though Holder, in a superb performance, makes him far more sinister) or like Leigh Bowery, the character Boy George played in his own musical Taboo. In the scene that follows, Mack and Polly’s wedding party, where they’re attended by his gang, clad in red-and-white-striped jerseys, overalls and black bowlers designed by Mortimer, the bridal couple flies down in a cut-out of a moon (complete with the man in the moon), in mid-coitus. The “Tango-Ballad” between Mack and Jenny, choreographed by Imogen Knight, has an Apache-dance vibe.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more hypnotic rendition of the “Tango-Ballad,” but the production has many other musical highlights including both the First and Second “Threepenny Finales” (Stephens has put the intermission after act two and shifted around some of the late second-act material into the third act), Kinnear’s “Ballad of Easy Living,” and Rosalie Craig’s two big numbers, “Barbara Song” and “Pirate Jenny.” Productions of Threepenny can get away with casting actors rather than singers in many roles, but you need a trained singer to carry off these songs, and as a result Polly, the ingénue part, too often is played by a pallid soprano with a pretty voice. The punch line is that Polly is no innocent; she turns out to be cleverer (and more pitiless) at managing the gang when Mack lands in jail than Mack himself. Craig, who was in the cast of London Road, is a hell of an actress and a hell of a singer. Mortimer has made her look a little dowdy, given her specs, and you don’t have to wait until the end of act three to find out she’s nobody’s fool – you get it when she demands the attention of the gang to perform “Pirate Jenny” at the wedding party.

Three of the four major women in the cast – Craig, Gwynne and Small – are redheads; the fourth, Debbie Kurup as Lucy Brown, Mack’s other wife, has a black afro as well as orange hot pants and a silvery-white fringed shirt. When she and Craig’s Polly insult each other in the “Jealousy Duet,” while Mack watches from his jail cell, they’re both such adept vocalists that the trills at the ends of their individual verses are dead-on operetta parody that harks back to Brecht’s source material, John Gay’s 1728 The Beggar’s Opera. Gwynne, who plays Mrs. Peachum as a tottering drunk in a skin-tight red dress, is a true singer as well. Small, in the role created in the 1928 Berlin production by Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya, struggles with her vocals; she has a thin, somewhat bland soprano. But in her frizzy orange wig and tawdry lingerie, she looks like a drugged-out doll, and Small suggests a wasted, tragic character behind her rough Scots-accented persona. However, since he made so many changes to the text anyway, Stephens could have helped the actress out with better dialogue.

I saw the show the day the results of the Brexit vote came out, and Kinnear ad-libbed an allusion to it just after intermission that made the audience of well-heeled intellectual Londoners at the Olivier Theatre cheer and howl. You could just see Brecht grinning from ear to ear.

A scene from Little Shop of Horrors, at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, MA. (Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware)

Over the past several summers the musicals Ethan Heard has directed for the Berkshire Theatre Group at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield have become highlights of the Berkshires theatrical season. His just-opened crowd-pleasing production of Little Shop of Horrors is as much fun to sit through as last year’s Bells Are Ringing. The show has a cast of nine that performs with infectious enthusiasm. James Ludwig plays not just the sadistic dentist Orin Crivello but all of the walk-on roles, including various customers and entrepreneurs who arrive on the scene after the spectacular blossoming of a strange plant called Audrey II makes Mushnik’s Skid Row flower shop famous. And instead of casting one offstage male singer with an R&B bass vocal instrument – like Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops, who sang Audrey II’s songs in the 1986 movie adaptation – as the voice of Audrey II, Heard employs a male performer in drag (Taurean Everett) as its face and a female singer (Bryonha Parham) as its singing (and speaking) voice. The lip-syncing element provides an eerie, echo-chamber effect for Audrey II’s scenes with the musical’s hero, Seymour Krelborn (Stanley Bahorek), whose loving nurturing of the plant turns into homicidal enabling when he discovers that the only food that will make it grow is human blood.

The 1982 musical is a comic take on the Faust story crossed with a Cold War-era sci-fi cautionary fable about extraterrestrial forms aiming to take over the planet. Chief among its many virtues is composer Alan Mencken and book and lyric writer Howard Ashman’s parody of the pop-culture elements of the early sixties. (It’s set around the time the cheapie Roger Corman movie on which it’s based was released.) The chorus numbers are performed by three Skid Row girls, Chiffon, Crystal and Ronnette, and appropriately they also provide back-up on many of the other numbers. The music is laid over doo-wop rhythms and matched to lyrics that reverse expectations or create silly puns that keep cracking the audience up. (Ashman also collaborated with Mencken on the scores for the Disney animated films The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast before succumbing to AIDs in 1991.) Seymour, the unassuming shop assistant who slaves away for his sourpuss boss Mushnik (Stephen DeRosa, channeling Jon Lovitz) for little pay and non-stop insults, is mad for his co-worker Audrey (Lindsay Nicole Chambers), a peroxide blonde whose self-image is even lower than his: she dates the brutish Orin, who beats her up on a regular basis. “The guy sure looks like plant food to me,” Audrey II and Seymour sing when they witness Orin slapping Audrey across the face in the shop after hours, and that’s the end of the dentist. But he’s the musical’s first-act wild card, especially in the scene where, against the background of an office wall hung with dental equipment that looks like medieval torture instruments (Reid Thompson is the scenic designer), he anticipates the pleasure he plans to derive from operating on Seymour’s mouth and rushes off stage to secure a fresh supply of nitrous oxide – not for his patient, but for himself. (A bizarre bit of trivia: the movie version of the musical, with Steve Martin in the dentist’s role, came out the same year Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth enhanced his sadistic sexual pleasures with some unspecified drug inhaled through a gas mask in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.)

The whole cast of the BTG revival is game and entertaining, though the Skid Row trio, Alia Hodge, Kay Trinidad and Jalise Wilson, are considerably livelier in their numbers than in the book scenes. The stand-out work is done by Bahorek as Seymour and Ludwig as Orin; Ludwig is such a vibrant and witty performer that it’s a relief when he shows up again in other parts in act two, a choice that he and Heard don’t make much of an effort to disguise. (It’s part of the show’s cheerily low-rent nature.) Rick Bertone, working with a combo, directed the music, which sounds great. The show looks nifty, too: Oliver Wason designed the lighting, David Murin did the costumes – some of which make you laugh out loud – and Mio Guberinic took charge of Audrey II. It’s a gas.

Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson in The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk at London's Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. (Photo: Steve Tanner)

Emma Rice, the new artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, has violated its mandate by directing a non-Renaissance play, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, in the intimate Wanamaker Playhouse. Rarely has a break with tradition been perpetrated so charmingly. The production, a collaboration with Kneehigh (Rice’s old company) and Bristol Old Vic, directed by Rice, is a revival of a two-hander by Daniel Jamieson that he and Rice co-starred in for Theatre Alibi in the nineties. It’s the love story of the Russian-born painter Marc Chagall (played here by Marc Antolin) and his wife Bella (Audrey Brisson), and its whimsical, surrealistic style mimics that of Chagall’s paintings, though in fact he predated the surrealists. When Marc meets Bella for the first time, he lifts himself up on his toes to express his amorous delight. He’s wearing a forest-green jacket, her legs are covered with purplish-pink stockings, and they simulate running down the street together by lying supine with their legs stretched out like the flying lovers in his canvases. On their honeymoon he lies on his back and she somersaults into his arms. They take the things they love out of a suitcase, outsize items we recognize from Chagall’s work like a blue fish with fins like wings and a red cockerel with rose-like feathers and wear them on their heads. Antolin and Brisson fill in whenever a scene calls for other characters. At the Chagalls’ wedding, they execute the Jewish wedding dance – where the bride and groom are transported across the floor on chairs hoisted by guests – by manipulating chairs with puppet legs hanging over them. A rabbi who poses inadvertently for Marc while he’s sound asleep is suggested by a painting with holes for Brisson’s arms to thrust through, the bottom of the canvas resting on the tops of her boots. Antolin, in a veil, stands in for Bella’s weeping mother and later for his brother-in-law, who gets him out of fighting in the Great War by finding him a job in Moscow in the war office.

The only other people on stage with Antolin and Brisson are two wonderful musicians, Ian Ross (who wrote some of the music and directed it) and James Gow. Most of the songs are in Yiddish, but the theme song is the lovely old Ink Spots ballad “I’m Making Believe,” which begins the show (as a duet) and ends it (as a quartet). Rice and Etta Murfitt choreographed, and the crowded, lopsided, entirely delightful set was designed by Sophia Clist, who also did the costumes. The only weak element is the writing, which has to cover not only all the biographical material but the weighty historical material as well, since the Chagalls survive World War I and the Russian Revolution and then, during the Holocaust, become archetypal wandering Jews who wind up in America. Fortunately the visual invention and musical pleasures of the show more than compensate for the script, even in the wobbly second act. And it’s a very affecting piece. Marc begins the play by explaining that the little Russian town where he and Bella were born, Vitebsk, was flattened by the Nazis, and the play is really about irretrievable loss and how art addresses it. The Chagalls lose their home and their legacy; Yiddish, their native language, disappears along with the six million. And ultimately Marc loses Bella, to an infection. But at the end of the play, as he sits alone, eating the fish balls that his second wife has prepared for him, Bella comes back as an angel with paper wings embroidered with Hebrew script to keep him company, sharing his snack (though she comments that the fish balls she used to make were better). This little musical makes its point.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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