— Production poster
These days John Gay’s early 18th century story is known mainly via Bobby Darin’s 1959 hit song, Mack the Knife, and Bertoldt Brecht’s 1929 version of the play, The Threepenny Opera.
It concerns a gang of thieves in London who fence their stolen goods through the nasty but respectable Mr. Peachum, whose daughter Polly falls for the nefarious gang leader Macheath (the Knife). Appalled by their marriage, Peachum has Macheath imprisoned and sentenced to hang.
According to director David Newham’s program notes, this large-cast but bare-bones version concentrates on Polly’s plight, an approach that initially makes the lead character Macheath into little more than another chorus member. Pretty Polly, meanwhile, does not have much to say or do, rendering the first act toothless.
The second act is radically better. It opens with Mac in Newgate Prison, negotiating with the jailer named Lock-It for lighter chains. Dialogue punctuates one of the show’s bouncier numbers, cheeringly sung by the inmates, ‘Welcome to Newgate Prison.’ As one of four prisoners dressed in strikingly effective jailhouse garb, featuring vertical black & white stripes and hats to match, Nick Fontaine finally emerges as Macheath, whereupon plot prevails over disjointed ensemble pieces.
Part of the original appeal of Beggar’s Opera in 1728, when John Gay wrote it for London audiences, was to take the stuffing out of Italian opera. As a large man dressed like a woman out of Dangerous Liaisons, with a Tower-of-Pisa-like beehive hair-do that would do Marge Simpson proud, burly Rob Gillespie is an unforgettable presence as dainty Mrs. Peachum. The lone veteran actor among the 17-member cast, Linden Banks, affords an effective Mr. Burns-like appearance as her husband.
An electric guitar is not the ideal instrument upon which to present a large scale musical. The overture is too long. The jailer shouts too much. The whores look like nice girls from good homes... But there is a wonderful strangling scene, almost realistic. Daniel Deorksen is both beguiling and menacing as the narrator/tramp who nicely bookends the show. The meandering violinist/tramp Phyllis Ho drifts through the production like a pleasing breeze…
There is a prerequisite to enjoying this original adaptation—as I did: Remind yourself how much time, effort, belief, money and audacity is required to mount a large-cast musical.
If you lower your expectations for sophisticated dance pieces, if you can imagine an orchestra providing accompaniment rather than a minimalist rock ensemble, and, most importantly, if you can continuously remind yourself of the struggle it takes for even topnotch professionals to painstakingly rehearse even one never-before-produced choreographed number, let alone twenty songs with choreography—as dramatized by the behind-the-scenes, let’s-take-Broadway-by-storm, hit TV mini-series Smash—well, then, and only then, will you find yourself constantly thinking, “Hey, this could be good.”
A din of off-key singing and frequently unintelligible lyrics cannot vanquish the audaciousness of this remarkable leap of faith and talent from the show’s three main creators—co-director Newham; co-director, composer and performer/narrator Daniel Deorksen; and choreographer Catherine Burnett.
Beggar’s Opera is excitingly bad. If they had a million dollars to build sets, hire professional musicians and proven performers, this trio could mount a Bob Fosse meets Tommy extravaganza with their hoped-for dashes of Beckett, something nearly as astonishingly as what they have imagined it could be. But when you are producing a musical without one singer who excels at singing, you are dreaming in technicolour.
-- Paul Durras