January 21, 2019

‘The Threepenny Opera’ Exceeds Its Grasp

In its five years of existence, A Noise Within, the classical-theater company, has given audiences many of the most enjoyable performances to be offered anywhere in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle recently recognized this sustained level of excellence by handing out two of its top awards to the Glendale company.

To reach such peaks, artistic directors Geoff Elliott, Julia Rodriguez Elliott and Art Manke have readily taken risks, which, by definition, implies occasionally falling short of the mark.

In bravely tackling the complex “The Threepenny Opera” by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill as its first musical presentation, the company’s reach appears to have exceeded its grasp.

First, for the problems:

* The limited physical space, meaning that the theater’s small central stage is not designed to accommodate a cast of 33. When everybody is on stage, the cast all but overwhelms the small audience.

* Most of the principals are better actors than singers.

* Geoff Elliott, a standout in many of the company’s past productions, is too nice a guy as Macheath, and he rarely gets across the coldblooded menace of the murderous Mac the Knife. The same criticism applies to most of the whores, who do not convey the lewdness and cynicism of the Brechtian characters.

* Finally, the production, directed by Walton Jones, shares the problem faced by all English translations of “Die Dreigroschenoper.”

In adapting John Gay’s 18th-century “Beggars’ Opera” to the milieu of 1920s Berlin, Brecht endowed his murderers, beggars, hookers, thieves, pimps and corrupt cops with a biting underworld argot that loses much in translation.

Michael Feingold’s translation, used, for the first time, in this production, may be a bit grittier than earlier versions, but it still cannot match the punch to the solar plexus of the original.

Now for the good news. The best is Mitchell Edmonds as Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, who obviously revels in the role of the entrepreneur who organizes London’s beggars into a well-run, profitable enterprise.

It is interesting that in his voluminous annotations in the German version of the play, Brecht ranked Peachum above Macheath as the chief protagonist. Peachum stands for Brecht’s favorite target, the bourgeois businessman, without scruples and without illusions, and Edmonds gets it just right.

Other satisfying character performances are by Deborah Strang as Mrs. Peachum; Becca Rauscher as Jenny; John A. Billingsley as the beggar Filch; and Erika Ackerman as a naïve, if somewhat pale, Polly Peachum. The six-piece band and ballad singer Matthew Henerson give expressive renditions of Weill’s score.

The costumes of the Peachums, as well as of most of the other characters, are a joy to behold, thanks to Angela Calin. Similar compliments go to Dick Ortenblad, who somehow expands the stage beyond its narrow confines by his imaginative, two-story sets.

“The Threepenny Opera” runs through May 4, in repertory with Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” and Luigi Pirandello’s “So It Is!…If So It Seems To You.” For tickets, call (818) 546-1924.