Theater Review: Jobsite’s The Threepenny Opera promises to be wonderful, but then…

The astringent Brechtian worldview comes through in places, but coherence is lacking.

The Threepenny Opera

Two-and-a-half of five stars

Straz Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N. W.C. MacInnes Place, Tampa.

Through Nov. 12: Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.



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click to enlarge Theater Review: Jobsite’s The Threepenny Opera promises to be wonderful, but then…
Angelina Hill and Sickles TV Production

If everything in Jobsite Theater’s Threepenny Opera were as good as Jonathan Harrison’s performance as J. J. Peachum, this would be a very different production. Harrison, a seasoned veteran of Bay area musicals, knows how to grab an audience and hold it in his hand, and in Threepenny he uses every trick he’s ever learned. With powerful, aggressive singing, he gives us a Peachum who’s the unchallenged Boss of All London Beggars, a dominating, intimidating presence who’s not about to sit back when he hears that his daughter Polly is planning to marry the entirely disreputable Macheath. Because Threepenny Opera begins with Harrison’s Peachum (and with Fo’i Meleah as his irascible wife Celia), we can be excused for believing that a delightfully astringent world is coming, one as tough and ironic as those back-of-the-paperback photos of playwright Brecht, smiling (or is it grimacing?) at us poor, deluded mortals. That Brechtian scorn, that Brechtian wisdom, that’s what Harrison’s performance promises is coming. This is going to be wonderful.

But then — it’s not. And there are, I think, several reasons.

The first is Chris Jackson’s performance as Macheath, “Mack the Knife.” As I’ve several times opined, Jackson is one of the best actors in the area, a star whom I’ve had the pleasure of watching from his earliest professional appearances. But in Threepenny he’s miscast. To make sense, Mackie needs to be dark, more or less ugly, and yet strangely charismatic, a criminal Svengali with subterranean magnetism. Jackson, on the other hand, exudes honesty, health, and fineness of feeling; he’s not a bit convincing as a serial manipulator married to multiple women, and he’s certainly not credible as a murderer and thief. The problem is compounded by Jackson’s singing, which is pallid — no swagger — and, on occasion, off-key. I’m not saying that Jackson won’t develop into a fine musical actor, but he’s not there yet. And he’s certainly not Macheath.

The next problem is the confusion of talent in the secondary roles. Threepenny has a large cast — over a dozen characters — and I have to assume that director David M. Jenkins found it difficult to assemble a group that he could make coherent from top to bottom. So we get a little of everything: Giselle Muise as Polly Peachum is shrill and annoying, but Amy E. Gray as Jenny Diver is commanding and in good voice. (Her “Pirate Jenny” is one of the best songs in the show.) Derrick Phillips, with his shaven head, long beard and strange long coat, isn’t anyone’s idea of a police commissioner, but Colleen Cherry, as Betty and a Streetsinger, has just the right combination of depravity and insanity to remind us that, for a couple of hours, it’s Brecht’s world that we’re living in.

Then there’s the problem of Ryan E. Finzelber’s homely set: two crude-looking staircases on either side, a poorly rendered travesty of a statue of Justice in the center, and an oversized rectangular thing hanging from the ceiling that looks to be some giant’s discarded box spring mattress. Katrina Stevenson’s costumes are likable enough (except, again, for Phillips’s get-up), and so is Finzelber’s lighting. But there are long segments of the show when it seems that everybody’s shouting, and it’s not at all clear what they’re shouting about. These sections turn Threepenny into nothing more than a noisy blur.    

Still, there are fine moments: for example, the comic acting of Spencer Meyers. Meyers has two small roles in Threepenny Opera, but he handles them with a complex emotional tone that I wish the whole cast had evidenced. That tone mixes psychological eccentricity (and even wildness) with bottomless skepticism and mindless momentum, as if he’s careening through his scenes without knowing how to stop himself. Like Harrison, like Cherry, Meyers brings Brecht’s Germany to Trump’s America with real creativity, compelling us to ask what those two seemingly different universes have in common. (One of the high points of the musical is the appearance of a sign: MAKE LONDON GREAT AGAIN.) This is hardly the only way to play Brecht, but it’s a good one and rewards our scrutiny. If more of the actors had shared this attitude — or some other relevant approach — this Threepenny might have soared.

No such luck. Call the show uneven.

And keep on Waiting for Bertolt.


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