THEATRE IN THE RAW, Russian Hall, 17th - 27th November
My Two Pence
My Two Cents
By Penny Warwick
Let me preface this with a somewhat important disclaimer: it is very hard to review a show that you cannot physically see most of.
Having attended the show on a well attended performance night (and thinking I had somewhat lucked out in this regard) I found myself near the back of the centre section. Alas – no cause for concern - the Russian Hall has a stage! Unfortunately for me, Jay Hamburger’s decision has been to place the band on the stage and have the actors on the floor. The same floor on which I am seated now with a good number of heads in front of me and extremely limited view. Although throughout the show I get a good view of Earle Peach, a vivacious figure in red, hugely engaged with the action below to the point of miming along to certain words in songs, body language mimicking the actors. He is surrounded by the band of not so-merry-men (and women) looking pretty insentient throughout but that’s probably how bands usually look during musicals, they’re concentrating on their job. Rightly so! I’m simply not used to them being brought to the focal point in such a bizarre and disconnecting way, and probably neither are they.
I adore the Threepenny Opera. This is a show which in it’s truest essence is formidable, brutal, jarring, earthy and full of pitch-black humour. I have seen this show and cried. I have seen this show and come away looking at the world in a different light. I have seen this show and been deeply affected. This production was staggeringly polarized from these previous opinions and experiences.
There are very crucial things here which have gone awry. The choice to cast Kevin Armstrong as Macheath might be one of the strangest I have ever witnessed on the Vancouver stage. Armstrong clearly is a formidable opera singer but does not embody the effortless charm and juxtaposed cutting brutality of the character. Indeed some of the acting seemed to come straight from the school of pantomime – more akin to the dame character than the dark and brooding lead of this story. Following a similar tact was Stephen Street as Tiger Brown.
The acting delivered by supporting cast and ensemble was largely better, with the scenes dominated by women particularly standing out. Despite the large audience, which should bolster a show, overall the performances felt a little flat. The romances and affections with Macheath and each of his “women” were wholly unbelievable and there was no chemistry at all, making the scenes where the women fought or fawned dubious at best. In addition to finding it hard to see, I was also off-put by cast members walking around behind me often having their own whispering chats, and then found myself getting rather jealous of their better viewpoints of the show as they waited in their aisle entrances.
I am also surprised at Hamburger's choice to use North American accents in this production; having seen a number of amateur productions recently in Vancouver who have managed to accomplish this challenge - given the material. So, it seems a bit of a cop-out. I'm probably bias, of course, as a Brit myself. Even more surprising having made this change was the use of the original references to English cities, parts of London and slang - given that the premise was that it was still set in 19th Century Soho, but stylistically was hoping to be 1920s Germany, and with "a bit of Commercial Drive flavour" (this I see from Hamburger's directors notes). If it sounds confused, it definately felt confused. I'm certainly baffled.
I have to completely change direction at this point to talk about the vocal performances which were incredible. This production has phenomenal singers and each song musically was spot on. The clear years of training from the leads was astounding. If there had been one available I would have bought the cast recording on the spot. I particularly enjoyed Lucy (Jenny Andersen) and Polly’s (Katie Purych) “Jealous Duet” in Act Two, the rousing “Useless Song” lead by Stephen Aberle as Peachum (this number also a stand out for it’s brilliantly exacting choreography by Anna Kuman) and Lindsay Warnock’s crushing Act Three solo “Solomon Song” as Jenny Diver. A concert version with this cast would have the potential to be an absolute triumph.
By Marian Hope
Disclaimer: I was not excited about seeing this show. However, I was hoping to be pleasantly surprised. I was not.
Ultimately, I’m not sure that I would like any performance of The Threepenny Opera as this show is simply not my typical cup of tea. Based on a show’s synopsis, I can usually predict fairly accurately before seeing a show if I will like it or not. I suspected I would not leave the Russian Hall saying “gee, I loved that”. But, again, I was hoping to be proven wrong. I always want to be proven wrong when I don’t think I will like a show. Keep that
in mind as you read on.
First, let’s talk of the setting: I couldn’t see a good chunk of what was happening on stage as most of the performance took place on the floor below the raised stage, where the band played from. If you choose to see this show, sit in the front row or all you will see is the back of audience members’ heads and half of the action on stage. The show’s running time of approximately three hours, with two intermissions, was hard to sit through especially with how uncomfortable the chairs were. The concession stand was set up in the back of the Russian Hall gymnasium and during one of the acts they were brewing coffee. All I could hear for what felt like forever
was the sound of coffee percolating.
The main reason this show did nothing for me is that the direction seemed to be all over the place (or, perhaps, no concrete direction was actually provided). The overall feel of the show was very disjointed and I couldn’t pull from it a clear, cohesive “message”. From Jay Hamburger’s Director’s Notes I think he was trying to create a show which explored class struggle and mirrored the plethora of problems existing in today’s world. This did not come across to me at all. It all felt very jumbled with no through-line connecting the multiple characters and plot lines.
At times I felt like I was watching a musical pantomime. Select audience members in the front row cheered over-zealously and occasionally quipped in with personal commentary. Mack the Knife (Kevin Armstrong), in particular, interacted with them, but that distracted more than added to the show. If this was select audience members simply being jerks then Mack the Knife responded ably.
The saving grace of this show is the cast of performers assembled. There was not a weak link in the bunch. In particular, the charming Katie Purych gave a stellar performance as Polly Peachum. As Jenny Diver, Lindsay Warnock’s performance of Solomon Song was one of the rare moments when I got lost in the show. Jenny Anderson was utterly hilarious as Lucy Brown. The gang of men were a joy to watch and quite honestly kept
me awake when my eyelids felt like taking a nap.
Unless you have a true fondness for this particular show, I’d say skip it. There’s a ton of good theatre in Vancouver right now – spend your time and money on something else.