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Theater Review: “The Threepenny Opera” at Signature Theatre

A contemporary update to Brecht’s 1928 musical conjures up a menacingly dystopian London.

Reverend Kimball (Thomas Adrian Simpson, center) oversees the marriage of Polly Peachum (Erin Driscoll) and Macheath (Mitchell Jarvis) in The Threepenny Opera at Signature Theatre. Photograph by Margot Schulman.

First things first: The Queen is dead. In the dystopian parallel London of Signature Theatre’s pitch-black The Threepenny Opera, her Maj has snuffed it and Prince Charles has abdicated the throne, leaving Prince William to rule over a country so divided by inequality that merry bands of Dickensian criminals pillage Fabergé eggs and Persian rugs from presumably oligarch-owned Belgravia mansions.

Design-wise, Matthew Gardiner’s production nails Brecht’s 1928 musical about a charismatic killer known as Mack the Knife, from the Banksy-inspired scrawls covering Misha Kachman’s set (“One Nation Under CCTV”) to the Alice in Wonderland-absurd costumes Frank Labovitz has conjured up to distinguish high from low (Erin Driscoll’s Polly Peachum wears a ridiculous yellow plaid suit, while Macheath’s crew sport Burberry baseball caps and Adidas kicks). The rest is a little more complicated.

This particular translation by Robert David MacDonald and Jeremy Sams debuted at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 1994, when the very idea of a King William seemed eons away. (Now that his ascension to the throne is a plausible concept, a contemporary Threepenny Opera might punch harder if it felt less like a pantomime and more like the world we live in.) The book and lyrics (to Kurt Weill’s songs) are riddled with obscure British references—Mills & Boon, Marks & Spencer—that obfuscate the already cloudy plot.

Before Mitchell Jarvis’s Macheath even appears from the shadows, puffing on a divinely inspired Blu Cig that casts a pallid light over his face, he’s introduced by Jenny ( Natascia Diaz) in what feels like the most thrilling rendition of “Mack the Knife” in the history of theater. “He’s a rapist, he’s a sadist,” Diaz sings, with eyes impossibly vast and mournful. “And they haven’t caught him yet.” Jarvis’s Macheath seems modeled on Heath Ledger’s Joker in his gleefully psychopathic mood swings, but he also falls a little flat compared to the flagrantly insane meth freak of a Frank N. Furter the actor brought to Studio Theatre’s Rocky Horror Show last year. When Driscoll’s enigmatic Polly borrows Mack’s flick knife and brandishes it against the neck of a hapless henchman, you’re rather more inclined to believe she’ll be the one to actually use it.

The performances by the featured actors and ensemble are all huge—perhaps overly so for Signature’s cozy theater—and the vocals are over-amplified to the point of being ear-splitting. For Diaz, such volume feels justified, but after her phenomenal opening number she disappears for the length of a Bible. Group numbers such as the “Wedding Song” benefit from Gardiner’s choreography, as does a resounding tango between Macheath and Jenny as she recalls his brutal behavior as her lover and pimp. And Bobby Smith and Donna Migliaccio are pitch-perfect as Polly’s parents, the conniving but charismatic Mr. and Mrs. Peachum, who’d be right at home running a tavern and abusing orphans in Les Misérables.

London in 1994 was dealing with the tail end of a particularly nasty recession that left more than 3 million unemployed in the UK. As inequality becomes more and more palpable all over the globe, this contemporary take on the dichotomy between rich and poor is hampered by its Victorian origins, feeling more Oliver Twist-archaic than 21st-century Madoff morality tale. But its beguiling and hard-working cast offer plenty by way of compensation.

The Threepenny Opera is at Signature Theatre through June 1. Running time is about two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets ($40 to $99) are available via Signature’s website.