The Threepenny Opera is the 1928 musical that gave us "Mack the Knife," and its current incarnation at the Hunger Artists Theatre Company gives it to us right off. Not Bobby Darin-style, of course, nor even the Kevin Spacey imitation. And see, that's the thing about faithful presentations of historic works by small companies with limited resources. They're not Bobby Darin.
Jeremy Gable, as The Balladeer (one of four roles he filled during the evening) sang the tone-setting song about Captain Macheath, a.k.a. Mack the Knife, a romantically dashing and ruthlessly slashing man whose gang rules 19th-century London's seamiest districts. Gable, a man of altar-boy looks—one of his other roles was a priest—sang it straight, without an inkling of arousal or anxiety. Unfortunately, that did set the tone.
Threepenny was created by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill as a barely veiled indictment of the fat-and-sassy capitalist days of Germany's Weimar Republic, which was soon to fall to Hitler's dictatorial influence and into World War II. All of the characters are somehow corrupt: Macheath robs with impunity by giving kickbacks to the police chief—while boinking his sister, Lucy Brown—and seeks to tap into the take of Jonathan Peachum, who extorts money from beggars, by marrying Peachum's daughter Polly. Meanwhile, everyone screws—and screws over—the whores.
Jason Lythgoe's angular good looks are perfect for Macheath's smooth side, and his singing voice is solid. But his hepcat never makes the transition to cutthroat. He flashes a switchblade once, but quickly puts it away, almost apologetically. His gang, particularly John Downey III as Ready Money Matt, throws more petulant hissy fits than growling threats. It's like they closet romantic passions for Macheath, too—and if that's what directors Shannon CM Flynn and Kelly Flynn are aiming for, they ought to emphasize it more: it would be the edgiest part of the show.
The foppy carryings-on of Richard DeVicariis and Karen Merrill likewise bring a sense of sexual disguise to the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Peachum, and it hurts the show. Both characters are supposed to be toughies. Neither actor convinces us for a minute.
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Samantha Smith, however, is perfect as the faux-innocent Polly Peachum. Her looks are fresh, her voice is beautiful, and her acting doesn't turn into mugging when she sings. Marissa Thompson does similarly good work as the icy-hot Lucy Brown, and her collaboration with Smith on "Jealousy Duet" is the musical high point of the evening.
Meanwhile, the multi-purpose set by David Scaglione—particularly the turn-around jail-slash-gallows—makes the imaginative most of a tight space. The piano accompaniment of P. Matthew Park is seamless.
Ultimately, this stripped-down, play-it-straight Threepenny Opera works best as a classroom for those unfamiliar with the history of musical theater. It is an insight into an evolutionary moment, a precedent that made possible future darkly comic song-and-dance commentaries like Cabaret and Chicago. It reveals where some of our most dependable clichs come from—and the evergreen qualities of some of our most deplorable human characteristics. It also reminds us how badly we could use another Bobby Darin. Long live Kevin Spacey!
The Threepenny Opera at the Hunger Artists Theatre Company, Empire Theater, 699-A South State College Blvd., Fullerton , (714) 680-6803; www.hungerartists.com. Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m.; also Aug. 10 & 17. Through Aug. 20. $15-$18.