On Stage: ‘Threepenny’ Showstoppers

by Chuck Conconi

REVIEW: Signature’s Natascia Diaz among the standouts with ‘Mack the Knife.’

Natascia Diaz and Mitchell Jarvis in Signature's 'Threepenny Opera' (Photo by Margaret Shulman)

Natascia Diaz and Mitchell Jarvis in Signature’s ‘Threepenny Opera’ (Photo by Margot Schulman)

It’s hard to know where Signature Theatre’s “The Threepenny Opera” can go after Natascia Diaz’s show-stopper, when as Jenny, she stands alone on the stage and sings “The Flick Knife Song,” better known as “Mack the Knife,” in a carefully paced and enunciated crystalline voice. It is the opening song of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s cynical musical, and she is mesmerizing. Her rendition is so chillingly haunting that it is possible to forget all those other more familiar jazz-style renditions by Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and Bobby Daren. Diaz has such a commanding presence that it is unfortunate Jenny isn’t required to be on stage more.

This is the first time Signature has staged “The Threepenny Opera,” first produced in 1928 and often referred to as the most provocative musical ever written. This production, directed and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner with musical direction by Gabriel Mangiante, is brilliantly conceived and cast with strong voices that respect the music and Brecht’s dark lyrics.

The sardonic mood of the musical is quickly established in the entrance into Signature’s Max Theatre. Carrying out the theme in a not-too-distant future England, audience members are greeted by a portrait of a recently deceased Queen Elizabeth with bouquets of flowers, the now familiar public gesture following tragedies. Newspapers report that her son, Prince Charles, is stepping aside so that his son, Prince William, can ascend to the throne, and his coronation is imminent. Also along the brief walk into the theater are colorful London tabloids on the wall with lurid headlines about the murderous spree of the infamous Macheath.

In the theater, Jenny matter-of-factly outlines his horrifying exploits in that opening number about the violent man with a switchblade feared throughout London. Mitchell Jarvis, Signature’s Macheath, struts about with a smarmy cockiness. He is a violent killer with a weakness for prostitutes who will bring about his downfall. In the Signature production, Macheath is more of a leering psychopath and, while he is also all that, the interpretation diminishes the role. He never lives up to the portrait Jenny paints in the opening number.

This well-oiled production understands Weill and Brecht’s anti-capitalism view, exposing the vast gap between the rich gathering for the coronation and the poor. Brecht’s poor are street beggars who have been forced into an organized business, dressed and dominated by Mr. Peachum (Bobby Smith) and his wife Mrs. Peachum (Donna Migliaccio). The Peachums demand and collect a sizable percentage of what the beggars earn and are looking forward to the coronation when the crowds present a great opportunity for begging and stealing. Smith is a formidable actor with an impressive voice. Magliaccio, one of the founders of the Signature Theatre, is a familiar and always welcomed voice in any production.

In “The Threepenny Opera,” Polly (Erin Driscoll), the Peachums’ daughter, falls to Macheath’s oily charm and marries him in a mock ceremony before his criminal cohorts. The Peachums are not happy about this and decide to find a way to have him arrested and hanged for his crimes. It isn’t going to be easy to accomplish, however, because the Chief of Police, Jackie “Tiger” Brown (John Leslie Wolfe) — another talented voice in the production — is an old army buddy who finds ways to protect him.

The Peachums eventually find success with the help of Jenny, who sells him out. Macheath is jailed and sentenced to hang on coronation day. In the lead-up to Macheath’s execution, Brecht created an incongruous, absurd ending. A parody of happy endings, it fits the cynical mood of the musical.

Lighting designer Colin K. Bills’ strips of colored lights complements scenic designer Misha Kachman’s bleak underbelly of London. Frank Labovitz’s costumes for the prostitutes, the shabby beggars, as well as the flashy suit-and-tie gigolo look of Macheath, are smartly conceived. Lane Elms’ sound design, however, seemed to be a bit over-miked at times.

Signature’s “The Threepenny Opera” is a dynamic and respectful homage to this cynical, classical work. Everything circles back to Diaz who is this production’s superstar. It is unfortunate that the ending didn’t find a way to bring HER back onto the stage to reprise her stirring “Mack the Knife.”

The Threepenny Opera,” continues through June 1, 2014, at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, VA 22206. Tickets are $40-$99 and available at 703-820-9771 and online here.

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