The intricate piece is performed upon a spare industrial set designed by Giulio Caesar Perrone, effectively lighted by Trevor Norton. Jennifer Brawn Gittings’ outrageous costumes are fun, and one may delight in the clownish makeup designed by Missy Bradstreet based upon German expressionists Otto Dix and George Grosz. Javier Velasco stages the musical numbers, and Tom Jones’ sound design never overwhelms the 11 singer/actors, even though Mark Danisovszky’s six instrumentalists, who sometimes double as performers, are scattered all over the playing area’s three levels.
Director Sam Woodhouse puts some dynamite entertainers upon the three-quarter thrust stage in the Lyceum Space. These include the magnetic Jeffrey Meek as Macheath (Mack the Knife); Leigh Scarritt as the canny lowlife, Mrs. Peachum; Amanda Kramer as her daughter, Polly; Lisa Payton Jartu as Jenny Diver, Macheath’s longtime favorite whore; and Amy Ashworth Biedel as Lucy Brown, Macheath’s pregnant girlfriend.
Ah, yes, that Macheath is a rounder in addition to his criminal activities, and the legality of the wedding ceremony performed during his and Polly’s elopement is dubious. He’s an equal-opportunity lover, though: all his women are treated with similar cavalier indifference. So long as he gets it, it doesn’t matter with whom.
Other actors include Lyle Kanouse as Mr. Peachum, who organizes and trains beggars and sends them into the neighborhoods of London (the Brecht and Weill piece is based on English playwright John Gay’s 1728 musical, “The Beggar’s Opera”); Paul James Kruse as Rev. Kimball and Constable Smith; and Gale McNeeley as the chief of police, Tiger Brown. Others in the ensemble are Shawn Goodman Jones, Ruff Yeager, Bryan Barbarin and Karson St. John.
Legal or not, Polly’s marriage to Macheath displeases her parents, who effect his persecution, prosecution and execution. In startling contrast to the other characters, Meek’s Macheath remains an island of passivity and calm in a mad world not entirely of his making. He has that kind of detachment common to criminals and serial killers like Sweeney Todd and others, fictional and non-fictional.
Weill’s music embraces the styles of London’s music halls, tango, operetta and even grand opera (“The Beggar’s Opera” parodies opera composer George Frideric Handel). Socially and politically, Brecht’s book has considerable resonance with our times. It was written in German and premiered in 1928 Berlin, where it continued until the Nazis banned it in 1933. In an English version by Gifford Cochran and Jerrold Krimsky, the work’s 1933 U.S. premiere played only two weeks. In a newer, commonly heard translation by Marc Blitzstein, it was revived off-Broadway in 1954 and played six and a half years, with Lotte Lenya (Weill’s wife) as the definitive Jenny. Singer Bobby Darin made the hit tune “Mack the Knife” a standard. The Rep utilizes the translation of Michael Feingold dating from 1989.
The work requires strong singers and actors. Kramer, Jartu and Biedel are comfortable in the full vocal range of their roles. The music sounds easy; it is not. Their accuracy and hard work must be applauded. Equally effective is veteran performer Scarritt, who captures the in-your-face style of this piece, which gave rise to so many other works, including “Cabaret” and “Sweeney Todd.”
Seeing “The Threepenny Opera” so close on the heels of Jack Montgomery and Nicolas Reveles’ new opera, “Rumpelstiltskin,” also performed in music hall fashion and in a high dudgeon of makeup and wigs, one comes to a new appreciation of the musical and theatrical styles engendered by certain eras. We’ve yet to see the Globe’s “Working,” where a 20th century sensibility meets reality as based on the writings of Studs Terkel, who, like Brecht, was accused of being a rabble-rousing, left-leaning voice.
“The Threepenny Opera” continues through March 29; show times are 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays at San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown San Diego. For tickets ($25-$53), call (619) 544-1000 or visit www.sdrep.org.