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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at Studio 54, New York

By Marilyn Stasio
Published August 0 2006

  The Threepenny Opera at Studio 54

Seasoned theatergoers know enough not to write off the flops, since even the most misbegotten project can have something worth pasting into the old memory book. In the case of Scott Elliott’s campy treatment of The Threepenny Opera, that certain something turns out to be pop diva Cyndi Lauper.

Making her "maiden voyage" (as she quaintly refers to it in the play program) on Broadway, the diminutive rock star is a ball of lightning on stage. It’s not that she brings any piercing character insights to the role of Jenny, the vindictive prostitute who betrays her lover Macheath for throwing her over to marry Polly Peachum. Lauper is no trained stage actress and it shows in her blank stare when she isn’t pivotal to a scene.

But toss her a juicy song and she sinks her teeth into its neck like a famished wolf. Besides her pristine vocal sound and the instinct she has for isolating the definitive phrase of a song lyric, she brings a wry and bitter understanding to the songs that Kurt Weill and Bertoldt Brecht wrote in 1928 for their savage satire of the corrupt state of the Weimar Republic.

Wrapped in a raincoat and with her platinum hair tucked under a watch cap, she holds her ground in a solo spotlight and opens the show with a stark rendition of "The Moritat" ("Mac The Knife") that raises hairs on the back of the neck. Later in the show, looking decidedly more used up in a fright wig and one of Isaac Mizrahi’s slutty costumes, her bruised and battered Jenny wistfully reflects on the downfall of great men in the "Solomon Song," passing on all the sad wisdom acquired in the lifetime of a whore. And in her arch love duet with Macheath, "The Ballad Of The Pimp," she and Alan Cumming give us a sharp taste of what this show might have been, had less attention been paid to colorful fashions in decadence and more thought given to the doomed world that Brecht was writing about.

Brecht was giving it to capitalism with both barrels in his agit-prop satire. Furious at the greedy profiteers who rob the poor, exploit the workers, corrupt the law, and destroy all vestiges of decency in human society, he made a mockery of them by creating a criminal underclass in their image. The power of his sardonic humor has all to do with the depth of his contempt for both the ruling classes and the opportunists who adopt their perverted values.

None of this makes it into the production, which romanticizes the gangs of thieves, pimps, whores, rapists, and murderers that populate the story without acknowledging them to be parodies. Instead of finding contemporary parallels for their dirty deeds in our own social cesspools, Wallace Shawn’s tawdry book does all it can to make their sexual exploits more titillating, while reducing their rapacious greed to petty shopaholism.

Scott Elliott’s direction is even more superficial, its impoverished imagination stuck on outdated images of debauchery that went out with gold coke spoons and disco balls. Apparently inspired by the Studio 54 digs hosting the production, the director has come up with a look-as opposed to a concept-that draws on the nightclub’s infamous reputation as Sin Central during the 1970s drugs ’n’ disco era. But while creating a distinctive look for the show out of trashy-chic costumes and neon lighting, he provides no politically subversive context for the frantic gyrations of the coked-up boys and girls and sexually ambiguous whatnots.

With no interpretive platform to stand on, the lead performers fall back on the one party trick that always works-singing for their supper. Given no chance to play Macheath in the dangerous anarchic spirit in which Brecht wrote him, Alan Cumming compensates with the cunning charm that never fails him. Jim Dale does the same for the racketeer Mr. Peachum by substituting his own flair for music hall patter-comedy for the mo


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