The Theo Ubique cabaret theater in Evanston, now going by just “Theo,” is celebrating its 25th year with a production of The Threepenny Opera, a rarely performed classic from the late 1920s with book and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht and music by Kurt Weill.
The quality of the performance is exceptional. The acting, singing, directing, choreography and set are superb. From a 2023 perspective, however, the intent of the work is ambiguous: Is it powerful, biting satire or old-fashioned melodrama?
The answer playgoers give to that question is likely to color their viewing experience: totally love it or wish it were over sooner.
The Threepenny Opera has been called a play with music because the plot line is so integral to the theme of hypocrisy and corruption.
The show opens with the Ballad of Mack the Knife, the most familiar of its musical numbers and the introduction to the main character. Macheath is a petty thief and ne’er-do-well who marries, supposedly to raise his class status, while he womanizes with the local prostitutes.
Jenny and the ensemble, who sing Mack the Knife, display the strengths of this production: strong voices, good choreography and effective direction.
Carl Herzog plays Macheath, the nominal villain who all the while exposes the town hypocrites. Herzog’s voice is powerful and his duets with Polly and Jenny are dramatic. His solos in Act Three are heartrending.
Exposing an economically corrupt society works best if Macheath is seen as both a manipulator and a hero, but often his lines are overly explicit in communicating the message of economic hypocrisy. The last monologue in the production is so overt as to establish the work as a melodrama rather than a biting satire: “What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?”
The Threepenny Opera is about the corruption and hypocrisy of the crème de la crème, the people who are supposed to be better and know better.
One of these characters is Mr. Peachum (Thomas Shea), a spiritual leader of the community who runs a beggar’s scheme, cashing in most of the money for himself.
Shea has to appear likable even though we recognize he is the epitome of disgust. Macheath wooed and then married his daughter, Polly. Furious, Peachum wants him caught and hanged. Satire is inherent in Peachum’s role. Strong voice and charismatic stage presence are Shea’s strengths.
Mrs. Peachum (Megan Elk) cries foul when her daughter Polly (Chamaya Moody) marries Macheath, the town scoundrel – but she herself is a drunken fool.
Elk’s voice is the most operatic and a successful ploy in her function of comic relief, also done well. But while Elk is effective, built into her character’s lines and nature is an extreme that drifts to the melodramatic.
Lucy Brown (Nathe Rowbotham) and Jenny (Liz Bollar) are two prostitutes who are supposedly devoted to Macheath but turn him in, albeit reluctantly, for a good payoff. Their characters need to be brazen, yet vulnerable, and they are both.
The ensemble of other characters are powerless victims of a heartless society, petty criminals falling prey to doing anything to survive.
Together the cast is an assembly of fine actors and singers. Their ensemble work is a compliment to Theo. In The Threepenny Opera, they have taken on the complicated task of performing a play with music that today has a mixed message of satire and melodrama. I think it is going to be one of those productions either really loved or not.
The Threepenny Opera continues through April 30 at Theo, 721 Howard St. Tickets are $45 to $90 depending on date, seating location and whether a pre-show meal is ordered. For tickets and information, visit www.theo-u.com or call 773-939-4101.