It’s been said that the most salient quality of an enduring classic isn’t so much its adherence to some long-standing, eternal set of formal strictures — as we tend to imagine — but its strangeness. A classic is totally, completely, defiantly itself, and it knows how to get its freak on.
For a case in point, one need look no further than the delightfully strange and ingeniously inventive production of The Threepenny Opera currently running at 7 Stages. Director Michael Haverty, formerly artistic associate at the Center for Puppetry Arts and program director of Xperimental Puppetry Theater, often mixes puppetry, projection, animation, video feed and other inventive staging elements into his shows. And in The Threepenny Opera, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s socially satirical 1928 retelling of The Beggar’s Opera, he’s seemingly found the perfect match.
Visually and in the performances, there are elements of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, German expressionist cinema, the Sex Pistols, Mel Brooks, Cabaret, South Park, Charles Ludlam, Marilyn Manson, Tom Waits and Monty Python. That may sound like an impossible mishmash of disparate elements, but, if anything, a viewer begins to sense how much they all owe to Brecht and Weill, and how naturally these elements sit together in a production of their work.
Projections provide the interscene titles, and the action is often backgrounded by Haverty’s animations or black-and-white live video feed. One of the show’s many pleasures is the sheer level of variety and inventiveness of what develops onstage. By the time the deus ex machina of the queen’s messenger arrives at the end, it seems to make perfect sense that he has a horse’s head and his horse has a human one.
The tried-and-true 1954 English-language translation by Marc Blitzstein makes the show more accessible than a production in the original German, but still: with its bawdy sensuality the production is still decidedly not for kids (it never has been, I suppose).
Music director Bryan Mercer does a fine job of matching Haverty’s style with a stripped-down, late-night barroom, smoky music hall sort of approach to the sound, primarily evoked by tinkling piano and weezing squeezebox. On opening night, I occasionally heard audience members clapping along to a tune or even chiming in on a memorable chorus. It’s that sort of atmosphere.
The ensemble cast is compelling all the way around, but Don Finney is especially great as a drag Mrs. Peachum, bringing out that character’s bourgeois pretensions and grotesquely undiluted self-interest. The production contains memorably compelling versions of the show’s best-known numbers.
In all, cast and crew approach the nearly 90-year-old show with a sense of fresh curiosity and inventiveness, a general respect for the deep freakiness of the classic, a strategy that I think is all too rare in Atlanta. It’s a much smaller show, but in its own way, a far more ambitious undertaking than many of the big musicals that have been such a draw for Atlanta audiences of late. Three cheers for Threepenny at 7 Stages.