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The Threepenny Opera — Villanova Theatre at Vasey Hall

untitled (65)Kurt Weill’s insistent tingel-tangel score for “The Threepenny Opera” pervades the Vasey Hall stage, with horns and drum pumping to a martial beat that sometimes turns lyrical and satirically elegant.

Weill pervades, but Bertolt Brecht prevails in Valerie Joyce’s production that stresses story and book ahead of musical numbers. Or, at least is most humorous, commentating, and successful during its narrative sequences.

It isn’t that Joyce’s staging for Villanova Theatre doesn’t work musically. It has some splendid numbers, It’s that the book drives this production. More than usually, Brecht’s story of corruption and graft, in which the feared murderous thief Macheath is little worse, and certainly more romantic and courtly, than allegedly honest businessmen or chiefs of police, takes primary focus, and quite entertainingly.

Joyce maintains “The Threepenny Opera” as a play with music, employing several of Brecht’s alienating techniques in pointed introductions, use of signs, and an oft-present and always amusing moon, but allowing individual scenes to settle poignantly, so the wit and venom with which Brecht endows his comedy emerges as fully as that amusing moon, and the story of Macheath, Polly Peachum, and Mackie’s other wenches/wives takes firm and welcome hold.

Joyce uses music as an enhancement, a diversion that underscores what is being acted, just as Brecht may have philosophically intended. A number or two soars or adds to the complexity or tone of a scene, but in general, for Joyce and company, the play’s the thing, and they present it delightfully with touches of sparkle and effervescence. You sense the sincerity and duplicity in Stephen Tornetta’s Macheath, who is nonchalantly honest about being a rogue, a cut-throat, and one whose appetites need three women or more to fulfill him, Tornetta conveys an ease and a sweetness that explains why Mackie is attractive and why people, and especially women, even treacherous women, will do his bidding.

Joyce centers her production on Macheath and his amorous exploits. The beggars, and more subtle criminals, led by the Peachums, the police led by Macheath’s bosom buddy, Tiger Brown, and ladies of the evening get their due, but it is Macheath and his devotion to Polly…and Jenny…and Lucy…and random others, along with his preference to avoid Newgate Prison and the gallows, that commands and wins our attention.

The choice to stress acting over singing is a wise one because the Villanova cast may be adept at singing, but they do not do with a tune what they manage with a spoken line. Each of the main characters has enough of a voice to make his or her numbers enjoyable, but none of them is a true singer enough to give full weight to Weill’s score or Brecht’s lyrics (translated by Marc Blitzstein). Songs register, but there’s always that note that can’t quite be reached or that trails off into oblivion. Mitchell Bloom, as Peachum, and Allyce Morrissey, as his daughter, Polly, do the best with their solos and leads, Bloom being the single cast member to blend singing and acting with total aplomb. A rousing duet, as when Tornetta and John K. Baxter, as Tiger Brown, sing about their close friendship and their outlooks on life in “The Cannon Song” works well, as does “The Tango Ballad” with Tornetta and Megan Rose’s Jenny, but other musical passages don’t rise to their highest power because voices aren’t developed enough to contend with Weill’s range or Blitzstein’s tongue-twisters.

In general, Joyce’s “The Threepenny Opera” satisfies in the way it illuminates Brecht’s book, based almost faithfully on John Gay’s 1728 piece, “The Beggar’s Opera,” and takes advantage of sly naughtiness. Joyce and company bring out the sly and bitter truths in Brecht and Gay’s story and do it with a natural charm that extends to the entire cast, including the street singers, played by Christine Mandracchia, Mikal Odom, and Cari Brezina, and Jenny’s brothel mates, Dolly and Molly, played by Rebecca Jane Cureton and Elizabeth Campbell.

The opening number, choreographed by Joyce, does not bode well. Weill’s music sets a tone, but during his overture, the cast en masse writhes in awkward, stylized positions as if spoofing a Bob Fosse number set in Weimar.

The effect is off-putting, but not in a way keeping with Brecht’s famous Verfremdungseffekt, a distancing technique meant to self-consciously draw an audience to a specific message, thought, or moral. The dance is too precious, too thought out, too aimed to wow. Instead it seems out of place and gratuitously flashy.

I didn’t like it.

Things pick up the minute Odom begins the first lines of “Mack the Knife.” With Tornetta making a first appearance that promises dash and fun, the cast complete the song in Brechtian style, emphasizing the stealthy menace Macheath represents to the London community in which his name strikes fear. As Joyce’s dance become the background for a featured number, it becomes more palatable and more related to “The Threepenny Opera.”

Matters really go into full gear when the admirable Mitchell Bloom, so precise and so engaging in a polar mélange of roles for Villanova these last 18 month, commands your attention center front when he intones his first lines as Peachum.

As with the other characters he’s delineated so well, Bloom immediately endows Peachum with recognizable traits, some contradictory or for show, that tells you who this Peachum is and how he operates.

Bloom stresses Peachum’s respectability. He is neat and well-dressed, contrary to the disheveled, dissolute look often foisted or the character.

Bloom’s Peachum is upright in every way. He stands for the British business class and holds his Victorian dignity as dearly as he embraces any part of his efficient mercantile life.

So what if Peachum is a racketeer who assigns beggars their corners in 12 sections of London and who designs their pathetic costumes, fits them with pegs, and teaches them to appeal to human charity.

NealBoxPeachum is a cynic, and Bloom lets you know that while giving the character a preacher’s demeanor. He is doing good for mankind by employing folks who might otherwise be vagabonds and wastrels and by providing the kind denizens of this world the opportunity to feel good by displaying their charity to the less fortunate.

It is all good business, with Peachum collecting 50 percent of each beggar’s take and enforcing his advantage if an “employee” welches or poaches on another beggar’s assigned territory.

Bloom’s Peachum has the air of a St. James aristocrat who retires to his club, his chums, and his toddy after a busy day at the office. His cravat and vest are impeccable, his posture erect, and his pretentiously refined manners unwilling compromised when he has to rough up someone who’s cheated or doesn’t know the rules of the beggar’s trade. He is also a stern father to Polly, one who has to invoke “do as I say and not as I do” while looking out for her welfare and trying to find a suitor who will bring genuine credentials to the Peachum clan and make Polly a titled lady.

Bloom also sings well. His “Morning Anthem” truly launches Joyce’s production and is performed with purpose and texture.

Meghan Winch, another who has impressed in previous shows, is strong, proud Mrs. Peachum, able to keep Peachum and Company employees in line, physically and verbally, and clear about what she wants for and from Polly, which is unfailing obedience and a vow to eschew Mack the Knife and allow herself to be pursued by more highly regarded men.

Winch is one of the performers who is strongest when she is acting book scenes, especially when she bullies Jenny into doing her bidding and betraying Macheath to the police. Her singing has expression, but Winch has a high reedy voice, what I call a Coke-bottle soprano, and it seems more false in tone than the conniving Mrs, Peachum does in life.

Luckily, Winch mostly gets to bustle and boss, and she does this with a kind of glee and an admiration for her own talent in keeping her house and business straight. The only one Mrs. Peachum cannot control is Polly, who she desperately wants to get away from Macheath.

Winch’s is a commanding performance that is not marred by her singing — There’s imperative implied even then. — but who is most threatening and frightening when her character speaks.

The scene in Peachum’s emporium sets Villanova’s “The Threepenny Opera” on an even keel from which it never wavers. Bloom, Winch, Morrissey, and John McGraw as a beggar, Filch — Is that a name from an 18th century British play or what? — establish Joyce’s production as a comic drama, and Tornetta, Morrissey, and the guys playing Macheath-s henchmen — Chris Monaco, Brian Kortenhaus, Christopher Dayett, and Dan Gorman — keep all on course when they convene in the stable set designer Daniel P. Boylan turns into a honeymoon suite for Mackie and his latest bride, Polly.

Mac’s other wife is Lucy Brown, daughter of his boon companion and chief of police Tiger Brown. He also has an arrangement of sorts with Jenny Diver and the girls who work with her at a swank, if louche, gentleman’s club.

Tornetta has character a Macheath. There’s depth and substance behind a glib, criminal façade, Bedroom eyes show Macheath is a romantic who appreciates women and who cavorts with many out of enjoyment more than gluttony.

Tornetta makes Macheath charming. His carriage has a lightness to it, an ease that shows Macheath knows all he is and is not daunted by a reputation that makes the general populace cringe or the crime that keeps him feared and which earns his way into at least some of his friends’ hearts.

Tornetta wears Macheath’s amorality with pride. He endows the character with candor and an aloofness that casts a comforting spell on everyone. (Except, perhaps the victims we never see. You know, like the body that oozes life.)

As a singer, Tornetta needs to develop tone and endurance. His numbers do display his disarming nature and take on a romantic tone, even when they do not deal with love.

Allyce Morrissey is magnificently elegant as Polly.

Polly is her parent’s daughter, haughty and meticulous like her Dad, feisty and direct like her mother.

Although the Peachums live in the slums, they have airs. The refinement the parents affect Polly has in earnest, at least she’s played by Morrissey who conveys competence, confidence, and command.

Morrissey’s Polly is not a fool in love. As directed by Joyce, she goes into her marriage to Macheath with eyes wide open. Her parents have already reinforced Mac’s dastardly ways to her. Mac’s reputation precedes him. But Polly likes the danger and the debonair gallantry Macheath conveys. It’s Lucy who sings about not being able to refuse a man who does not ask for your favors but takes them, thrillingly, before you can object. At Villanova, it’s Polly who lives that philosophy, and Morrissey is the Victorian equivalent of a steel magnolia. She is aware she cannot control Macheath, but she is secure she can turn him into a more organized businessman, just as her mother does for her father, and is willing to accept a Lucy, or Jenny, or Dolly or Molly, to be by his side and share his company when he deigns to give it.

Being fair, Morrissey is a fine singer. Her voice is one of the truest in Joyce’s ensemble, and in most instances, Morrissey delivers her songs with expression that highlight their dramatic or satiric intent.

The number she has to work on is her major performance piece, “Pirate Jenny,” sung to entertain Macheath and his toughs during her wedding celebration.

Morrissey does a creditable job. She hits the notes, and she keeps Welll’s rhythms. She doesn’t quite achieve the blackness and spiciness of the song. She knows who Polly is, but she has not captured Pirate Jenny. Measures of bawdiness and anger are missing. There should be a chill in the air when Jenny intones, “That’ll learn ya” in Blitzstein’s colloquial patois. The audience should sense the fright the people on the dock feel as Jenny lines them up and judges whether she’ll kill them now or later. “Pirate Jenny” is not just Polly’s party piece, it’s a declaration of sorts of the mettle, and metal, that is inside her, a warning to Macheath and his posse to “take care.” A woman with this much fire will not be the Victorian rose she portrays on the outside.

Morrissey needs to find more of that bite, especially since “Pirate Jenny” is one of the few songs in which Blitzstein’s translations, the standard for “Threepenny Opera” productions in English, surpass Brecht’s original lyrics in German or Ralph Manheim and John Willett’s generally superior translation for Lincoln Center in 1976.

Another one whose singing has been just as much unfairly impugned to date is Jill Jacobs, who is good match for Polly or anyone who thinks she is more devoted to Macheath than Jacobs’s Lucy Brown. “The Jealousy Duet” between Jacobs and Morrissey is one of the highlights of Joyce’s production.

Lucy is as pragmatic as Polly, but a little less romantic. Time has worn Macheath’s luster in her eyes. She is a bit chagrined that the only time he seems to woo her, or call on her, is when he is locked in her father’s jail and needs an accomplice to escape.

Lucy may have decided to no longer be that accomplice, but having Polly, a willing martyr of a potential widow in the picture, makes her more competitive.

Jacobs doesn’t get the stage time Morrissey or Jenny Diver’s Megan Rose gets to establish herself, but when she’s on, she makes her presence felt. Jacobs’s Lucy is about the only one to can get Mac to exhibit shame and think about reforming. Jacobs acts Lucy well, and sings excellently.

It is good to see John K. Baxter getting more roles he can define and sink his teeth into. He is fine comic relief as Tiger Brown, the police chief whose convivial taste for friendship, and venal taste for good and steady bribery. Never allows him to take pleasure at seeing one of his favorites locked up behind his prison’s bars.

Brown is almost beside himself when he sees how vicious do-gooders like the Peachums use their respectability to bring Macheath not only to jail but to the scaffold and the gallows. Baxter plays this duplicity well, almost weeping at seeing his buddy, Mac, in the nick. Such bad luck doesn’t suit Brown’s “hail fellow, well met” ways, as displayed when he and Macheath recall their military days, days that shaped them, in “The Cannon Song.”

Baxter’s Brown is never less than amiable and always seems big-hearted and robustly spirited. He is comically miffed when he learns his officers have arrested Macheath and all sympathy when he realizes Mackie’s likely fate.

Megan Rose is another woman of the world as Jenny Diver. Rose doesn’t take the languid, lurid poses Cureton, Campbell, Meg Trelease, and Samantha Simpson do as hookers. She stands tall and upright. She has a crisis of conscience to deal with, and she lets you see her concern and warring considerations.

Like Tornetta’s Macheath or Morrissey’s Polly, Rose’s Jenny is a person of character. Feckless and unfeeling as her profession may be, she regrets the idea of having to betray Macheath and succumb to the odious Mrs. Peachum who has threats beyond Mac’s disdain to exact, threats Jenny cannot ignore.

Joyce and Rose are too smart to have Jenny just accept Mrs. Peachum’s money. This Jenny has substance and a mind that can take in an entire picture.

Rose, Morrissey, and Jacobs entertain well while eking out Brecht’s moral in “The Solomon Song.”

Throughout Joyce’s production, set designer Daniel P. Boylen is able to transform Vasey’s open set into the exact location Brecht requires. Peachum’s shop, Macheath’s decorated stable, Brown’s jail, and Jenny’s brothel all look detailed and authentic with just enough pieces to form the needed impression. Of course, the solid row of bars and the iron bench is the prison scenes is a tad more formidable than the other settings.

Janus Stefanowicz exercises her usual wit in providing the costumes. I especially liked the bridal dress in which Polly spends almost the entire show, and the natty but just-one-touch-off-from-Beau Brummell suit for Mr. Peachum is proper and funny simultaneously.

Peter A. Hilliard oom-pahed the right sound to indicate Weill’s Weimar roots. John Stovicek’s sound design and Jerold R. Forsyth’s lighting served the production well.

“The Threepenny Opera” runs through Sunday, April 26, produced by Villanova Theatre at Vasey Hall, Lancaster Avenue and Ithan Streets, in Villanova, Pa. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $25 to $21 and can be obtained by calling 610-519-7474 or by visiting www.villanova.edu/villanova/artsci/theatre.

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