Review: ‘The Threepenny Opera’ at San Jose Stage Company (***)

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ***)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(“The Threepenny Opera”plays at San Jose Stage Company from February 5 through March 30, 2014.)

It is universally agreed that Bertold Brecht & Kurt Weill’s “Threepenny Opera” is one of the great masterpieces of 20th Century musical theatre. It is a diffcult piece to get just right, and most productions are a combination of strengths and weaknesses. The current incarnation at San Jose Stage Company is no exception, but, weaknesses aside, it is well worth seeing.

Strengths first: the musical aspects are first rate. All the performers sing well and understand the particular demands of Weill’s style. The music is challenging, invigorating and consistently entertaining, and the performers know better than to compromise the difficulties by taking a more lyric approach than is called for. The result is a “Threepenny Opera” that is musically true to the composers’ intent, a huge plus for any production.

Haley Varady, as Jenny Diver, and Monique Hafen, as Polly Peachum, give standout performances. Their voices are quite thrilling, far more so than the  typical musical comedy performer, and their dancing and musicianship are impeccable. Other notable work includes Susan Gundunas as a comically intoxicated Mrs. Peachum, and, especially, Paul Myrvold who darn near steals the show as Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum.

Halsey Varady as Jenny Diver in San Jose Stage Company's production of "The Threepenny Opera". Phjoto Credit: Dave Lepori.
Halsey Varady as Jenny Diver in San Jose Stage Company’s production of “The Threepenny Opera”. Photo Credit: Dave Lepori.

“The Threepenny Opera” is set among the beggars of London, who are lorded over by the afore-mentioned Mr. Peachum, who allows no one to work as a beggar that he has not licensed to ply the trade. Peachum makes beggary a lucrative business and claims social legitimacy on that ground. But the Peachums face a family crisis, as daugher Polly has been seduced by the notorious Macheath (aka Mac the Knife, played here by a capable Johnny Moreno), a hugely successful ladies’ man who is known to be a vicious rapist and murderer. He has escaped the hangman’s noose thus far because of his friendship with Constable Smith (Brandon Leland).

Brecht’s script is a brilliant attack on illicit money making, police corruption and the soothing effects of charm, but the subtleties of his commentary are not fully realized here. Director Kelleher has urged his actors into a declamatory style that is too unrelenting, allowing little time for reflection or emotional subtlety. The choreography is interesting and well-executed, but relies too much on simulated sex and innuendo at the expense of other possible interpretations. At nearly three hours’ performance time, the lack of emotional variety in the acting and choreography becomes somewhat tiresome.

But the musical excellence of this production is riveting, and makes us inclined to forgive other flaws.

One caveat, however: the miking of the performance, though professional and unobtrusive, is unnecessary in this small theatre and detracts considerably from the enjoyment of the singers’ voices which would be better appreciated unamplified.

For further information, click here.

“The Threepenny Opera” adaptation and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht, music by Kurt Weill, German translation by Elizabeth Hauptmann, English translation of dialog by Robert David MacDonald, English translation of lyrics by Jeremy Sans. Director: Kenneth Kelleher. Musical Director: Richard Marriott. Vocal Director: Allison F. Rich. Choreeography: Marybeth Cavanaugh. Set Design: Giulio Perrone. Costume Design: Jean Cardinale. Light Design: Maurice Vercoutere. Sound Design: John Koss. Video Design: Garland Thompson Jr. Hair, makeup and tattoo design: Tabbitha McBride.


Jenny Diver: Halsey Varady. Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum: Paul Myrvold. Filch/Ned/Sue: Todd Pivetti. Mrs. Peachum: Susan Gundunas. Matt the Mint: Christopher  Scott Sullinger. Macheath: Johnny Moreno. Polly Peachum: Monique Hafen. Crrokfinger Jake: Garland Thompson, Jr. Bob/Constable Smith: Brandon Leland. Jimmy/Betty: Courtney Hatcher. Walt/Dolly: Juliet Heller. Tiger Brown: Will Springhorn, Jr. Lucy Brown/Nelly: Allison F. Rich.


Conductor: Allison F. Rich. Keyboards/Piano: Allison F. Rich. Trumpet: Guy Celestre. Piano: Ruth Butterfield-Winter. Percussion: Ryan Stohs. Banjo/Guitar/Bass/Trombone: Tony Frye. Reeds: Antony Picard.


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