Book and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht. Music by Kurt Weill. Directed by Jay Hamburger. At the Russian Hall on Wednesday, November 16. No remaining performances
In many ways, Theatre in the Raw is right on point with its production of The Threepenny Opera. The three-act musical tells the story of those left on the margins of society while capitalism prevails in Victorian London. Using a unique, in-your-face approach, Theatre in the Raw’s production effectively takes its audience into the seedy 19th-century world of beggars, prostitutes, and criminals, with some English-music-hall flavour to keep things from getting too dark and heavy.
East Vancouver’s Russian Hall is a clever choice for this musical. Viewing the show in the minimalist, no-frills atmosphere of what is essentially a multipurpose gymnasium, audiences sit right in the heart of the action. As the cast emerges and surrounds the viewers during opening number “The Ballad of Mack the Knife”, you feel like you could be in the middle of an early-20th-century East Hastings.
The Street Singer (Adam Olgui) guides the audience through the show with a persona similar to that of the MC from Cabaret, mixed with the Droogs from A Clockwork Orange. As a result, the opening number resembles what might have happened if Stanley Kubrick had decided to direct and transport Cabaret’s “Willkommen” number to Oliver!.
As a whole, the cast sounds terrific singing Kurt Weill’s score. Given the intimate nature of the production, no microphones are needed, and it’s lovely to hear the cast sing inches away from you, accompanied by the six-piece band behind them. The acoustics in the venue work very well for this.
Stephen Aberle delivers a standout performance as Peachum, who runs an organized begging ring. Aberle’s strong vocal projection and animated physical comedy, including shimmies and butt shakes, help make his Act 3 monologue a highlight.
Katie Purych is fun to watch as Peachum’s daughter, Polly, a young woman longing for adventure. When she sings “Pirate Jenny”, you can see her face light up and her breathing quicken with excitement as she fantasizes about killing all the people she dislikes. It doesn’t hurt that her crystal-clear voice also soars like a nightingale.
Less successful is Kevin Armstrong as Macheath, the show’s elusive criminal. While Armstrong has a beautiful operatic voice, he sings with almost no emotion for most of the show. He also lacks the charm to convincingly play a predatory mastermind who lies, cheats, and flirts his way through life.
The best parts of Theatre in the Raw’s production of The Threepenny Opera are the musical numbers where characters reminisce about the past and we learn their stories. The dimming of the lights, the captivating storytelling by the actors, and Anna Kuman’s dreamlike choreography serve as an eerie bridge between present-day reality and memories.
Still, we don’t learn enough about the impoverished characters to really care about them. Thus, the show’s commentary on social injustice never gains the legs it needs to stand on. However, the intimate and creative approach, along with some fine performances and production elements, makes Theatre in the Raw’s Threepenny Opera a commendable effort.