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vancouverplays review


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Beggar's Opera

Adapted by David Newham from John Gay
Music by Daniel Doerksen
Seven Tyrants Theatre
Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery St.
Mar. 4-14
$29/$20 or 1-877-840-0457

What a difference a year makes.

Buoyed by a palpable, hard-won, in-your-face confidence, Seven Tyrants’ revived and revised version of Beggar’s Opera is a stunning improvement over its audacious beginnings.

It’s not just that the singing is stronger. Co-creators David Newham and Daniel Deorksen have opted to adapt John Gay’s classic early 18th century “ballad opera” even more freely, jettisoning weaker bits, adding others.

Imagine Robert Altman doing Rocky Horror Picture Show and you’ll have a glimmering of how extensively this mawkish, grotesque and amusing coterie of seventeen performers—eight of whom are new to the show—has remodeled Bertolt Brecht’s 1929 version of the play, The Threepenny Opera

Most people have heard Bobby Darin’s hit song from the Sixties, “Mack the Knife.” But they'll hear only a taste of that classic number in this production. Composer Deorksen miraculously manages to score and perform a highly original, varied, full-length rock opera without a rock band, upholding a boisterous cast for almost two hours with the remarkable versatility of his lone, mostly off-stage electric guitar playing, accompanied by violinist Phyllis Ho. It's gotta be the most outstanding performance of the year that won't get seen.

The story concerns a gang of thieves in London who fence their stolen goods through the nasty but seemingly respectable Mr. Peachum, whose daughter Polly falls for the nefarious gang leader Macheath (the Knife). Appalled by their union, Peachum has Macheath imprisoned.

Macheath, a charming schemer, is able to bribe his jailer for lighter chains, then he escapes with the help of Lockit’s niece Lucy.

Sentenced to hang for having temporarily escaped, the anti-hero Macheath ultimately winds up with a rope around his neck—whereupon Deorksen reappears as a rasping tramp/narrator/troubadour. It's the songwriter who calls the tune: Deorksen declares the execution must be stayed. He decrees our prince of thieves must choose between the demure Polly and the lascivious Lucy.

Last year the program notes suggested this raucous Beggar’s Opera was chiefly attuned to Polly’s plight. It was an erroneous description that has since been wisely jettisoned in favour of lengthy and thoughtful mini-essays by Newham and Deorksen. Polly and Macheath are submerged within the overall cast; it’s the collective that shines.

The strongest performances arise in the second act when Gord Myren excels as the menacing jailor Mr. Lockit and Kayla Doerksen, the composer’s sister, stops the show with a deliciously intense interpretation of “Lucy’s Song.”

Two new ladies of the night contribute a much-needed ribald camaraderie for the cavorting of Mrs. Coaxer, a.k.a. an old whore, played by returnee Sharon Crandall.

Other highlights include one of the show’s bouncier numbers, “Welcome to Newgate Prison,” during which four prisoners, including Cameron Anderson, a new Macheath, are forced to dance like persecuted puppets in their strikingly effective jailhouse garb featuring vertical black & white stripes, as the thoroughly heartless Mr. Lockit does his best imitation of a sado-masochistic gym instructor. It's one of numerous sequences that capture the midway point between playfulness and mean-spiritedness and mark this production as strangely alluring.

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 again an unforgettable presence as dainty Mrs. Peachum. Linden Banks once more affords an effective Mr. Burns-like appearance as her husband, adding the panache of a seasoned performer to the young cast.

Last year, when Beggar’s Opera was staged on Granville Island, one had to lower expectations and continuously compensate for the low budget, gee-let’s-put-on-a-show approach. One had to remember the struggle it takes for even topnotch professionals to painstakingly rehearse even one never-before-produced choreographed number, let alone twenty songs, as dramatized by the behind-the-scenes hit mini-series Smash. Creating a musical from scratch is hard, hard work. The trick is to make it look easy.

This year, instead of leaving Beggar’s Opera thinking, “Hey, this could be good,” one leaves the show amazed by the stick-with-it-ness of the show’s three main creators: co-director Newham; co-director, composer and performer/narrator Deorksen; and choreographer Catherine Burnett. "Hey, this is good!” A big budget version of this bold undertaking could be a smash. One can only hope a Bob Fosse meets Tommy extravaganza, with hoped-for dashes of Beckett, will someday give Deorksen his due as a talented songwriter. Meanwhile, Beggar's Opera is now good enough to merit the curiosity of professionals in the theatre community who are higher up the food chain.

Paul Durras