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Home / Articles / Entertainment / Stage /  From Germany with ennui
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Thursday, October 18,2012

From Germany with ennui

Brecht’s groundbreaker breaks down

By Gary Zeidner
Photo by Sarah Roshan

As the world contains innumerably more shades of grey (way more than 50) than blacks and whites, there are virtually never just “two types of people.” Be that as it may, a foolish consistency is indeed the hobgoblin of little minds. So for the sake of this exercise there are two types of people: the type of person who tells his friend that his garlic, onion and Camembert breath is wilting the centerpiece at the office Christmas party, and the type who — for fear of embarrassment or loss of comity — lets Halitosis Harry walk right up to the CEO and regale him at close range with eyebrow-curling tales of his most recent vacation.

The second type of person is a coward, and we all know how many deaths a coward dies. Still, to be the first type of person is no cakewalk. Most people don’t like to hurt their friends’ feelings, even with good intentions. Yet, as in the potentially career-threatening example above, sometimes it is of necessity.

Miners Alley Playhouse in Golden has a remarkable track record of victorious productions. This award-winning theater company has been and remains one of my favorites on the Front Range. With The Three Penny Opera, however, Miners Alley misses the mark. Their production is by no means the theatrical equivalent of apocalyptic bad breath, but it wouldn’t suffer from a mint or two.

Considered one of the more influential playwrights of the 20th century, Bertolt Brecht is a legend of the boards. The effects of his work still reverberate loudly today. A German Marxist forced to flee the Fatherland during World War II, Brecht’s most widely recognized work is arguably The Three Penny Opera. It is an epic musical demanding an epic presentation, and as such it is not the best fit for the cozy confines of Miners Alley’s theatre.

The Three Penny Opera was conceived as a social commentary as much or more as it was an entertainment. Brecht liked to keep his audiences at a distance and preferred to engage their brains rather than their hearts. Miners Alley’s version stumbles as it grasps at overwrought emotion. Though its lips are speaking Brecht’s Bible that life’s a bitch and then you die, its eyes implore the viewer to feel for these cardboard characters.

The fact that Miners Alley’s take on the material falters and that this particular musical seems ill-suited to the company’s venue and style are not the only reasons The Three Penny Opera left me cold. The musical itself, as written by the master Brecht and scored by Kurt Weill, comes with its own built-in flaws.

You might not know that the jazz standard “Mack the Knife” originated as “The Ballad of Mack the Knife” in The Three Penny Opera nearly 100 years ago. This timeless tune, which has been recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Nick Cave and was at one time even the centerpiece for a semi-surreal ad campaign for McDonalds (see bit.ly/MacTonight), opens the show by painting a picture of a merciless murderer on par with Jack the Ripper. But while Mackie (aka Macheath) is shown to be a violent pimp and a criminal of the first order, he only unsheathes the legendary blade a handful of times and slashes nary a throat.

The King of the Beggars, Mr. Peachum, sings and struts like he’s cock of the walk, but he’s shown on multiple occasions to be more bark than bite. His daughter, Polly, secretly marries Mack. One minute she’s a doe-eyed virgin barely comprehending her husband’s criminal empire and blindly in love with him, the next minute she’s running his gang like a teenage Ma Barker and more than content to let the love of her life hang high.

Loud, long and labored, The Three Penny Opera is a square peg in a round hole. But you know what they say: “They can’t all be home runs.” I’m sure Miners Alley’s next show, the holiday-themed Greetings, will see them return to their usually commendable form.

The Three Penny Opera plays through Oct. 21 at Miners Alley Playhouse in Golden. Call 303-935-3044 or visit www.minersalley.com.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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