“The Threepenny Opera” has been described a lot of ways. Subtle is not one of them.
Composer Kurt Weill and playwright Bertolt Brecht wanted to both attract and repel theatergoers with this work of social protest that is set in the London underbelly during Victorian times and orbits a colorful cast of gangsters, prostitutes and shady officials.
The hybrid musical/opera, in this way, mimics the push-pull of the tango that is a key part of the show.
“That’s the brilliance of the Brecht/Weill collaboration,” said Bradley Greenwald, who plays gangster Macheath, the lead in “Threepenny,” in a Frank Theatre staging that opens Friday in Minneapolis. It’s “the maddening elixir of noble, exquisite melody and insolent and sometimes crass lyrics.”
Frank’s Wendy Knox has long admired Brecht. On her own and with the company she founded, Knox has staged half a dozen works by the German master, including “Mother Courage and Her Children,” “The Good Person of Szechwan” and “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.”
In fact, Knox produced “Threepenny” before — in 1999, for her company’s 10th anniversary. This production, for the company’s 25th anniversary, will be “15 years better,” she said this week.
Created in 1928, “Threepenny” is based on John Gay’s satirical 18th-century work, “The Beggar’s Opera.” Both shows orbit Macheath, who has secretly married Polly Peachum, to the consternation of her powerful father.
“When we first did it, I didn’t know as much as I do now,” said Knox. “I’m bullheaded about the text, but I’m kind of a bonehead about music. But I have an incredible cast.”
Half a dozen personnel from Frank’s earlier production are attached to this one, which has a huge onstage ensemble of 19. In addition to Greenwald, the cast includes such heavies from theater and opera as Janis Hardy, Gary Briggle, Molly Sue McDonald, and longtime opera singer and teacher Vern Sutton.
“Threepenny” reunites Sutton with some of his students, including Greenwald and Briggle.
“In 55 years of show business, I’ve done almost everything,” said Sutton, who turned 76 on Tuesday. He is playing a messenger. “The approach that Wendy is taking is the kind of thing we did a lot in the ’60s, even ’70s, where everyone comes to the table with their own ideas and the director synthesizes them into a whole.”
Sutton has sung Macheath in “The Beggar’s Opera” five times. Now he gets to deliver “Mack the Knife,” about Macheath, in “Threepenny.”
“Macheath is one of the worst people you could encounter, and he’s completely attractive to everyone,” said Sutton. “The farce of that is funny but also kind of creepy.”
That may have to do with the charisma of Greenwald, who sings, acts and also plays saxophone in the show. Many cast members also play instruments. McDonald plays the violin as well as Jenny, a role she describes as “a seasoned whore who exists to betray Macheath.”
“She’s crazy in her own way, and I get to play that music,” McDonald said. “Bradley and I sing ‘The Tango Ballad,’ a beautiful song about the most horrid things imagined. It’s a perfect example of the juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness. You get sucked in by the music, but the author doesn’t let you enjoy it.”
Mezzo soprano Hardy is reprising her role as Mrs. Peachum. She’s not sure if she wants her school-age grandchild to see this show. Hardy has a long history with “Threepenny,” which she did for the Minnesota Opera decades ago. She remembers that when she first performed in the opera, her daughter, then 7, came backstage after the show in tears.
“‘Can’t you ever be the princess,’?” she asked. “No. Not as a mezzo.”
Brecht and his “epic theater” collaborators drew their characters with “big magic markers rather than in pen and ink,” said Knox. “Our theater system is steeped in realistic, psychological approaches. You can throw all those things away with Brecht. You have to approach his characters outside in, rather than inside out.”
“Threepenny” embodies many of Brecht’s ideas, and Frank’s ideals.
“You don’t just go to the theater to sit and watch,” said Knox. “He wants to get you out of your seat to think and act. That muscular intellectual and social stuff is what we’re all about.”